Daily Southtown: Urbancom.net first to launch broadband microwave internet network in Chicago Metro area
Ed Urban III has gotten a hand from low-tech networking as he works to build a high-tech wireless Internet network in the Southland. A conversation in Tinley Park and a referral from his dad brought new customers to Urban’s company, Urban Communications Inc.
Targeted mainly to businesses, the service is appealing because it offers speeds rivaling digital subscriber line, or DSL, technology, but doesn’t rely on fiber optic or copper lines.
The Oak Forest-based company is delivering Internet access using transceivers mounted on rooftops and communications towers in the south and southwest suburbs. Customers are connected to the service using a flat-panel antenna – about the size of a sheet of loose-leaf paper – placed in a window or on the roof.
Because the service requires a line-of-sight signal, elevation translates into penetration as far as the placement of transceivers used to service customers.
In January, Urban Communications fired up a transceiver on a tower in Tinley Park that broadcasts signals for WJYS-TV (Channel 62). Perched 475 feet in the air, the transceiver can find customers as far south as University Park and Monee.
“It gives us a tremendous coverage area,” said Urban, president and chief executive officer of Urban Communications, which he founded in 1997.
The Sandburg High School graduate is an attorney with the Oak Forest law firm Urban & Burt Ltd., which was founded by his father. His father is senior partner with the firm.
Earlier this year, Urban was talking with Ken Cwodzinski, Tinley Park’s facilities and electrical engineer, trying to pinpoint the source of interference that was disrupting Urban Communications’ signal.
While the village was already a customer of another local Internet service provider, that would soon change. In June, that company abruptly went out of business.
“One day, all of a sudden, our Internet didn’t work.” said Cwodzinski, who’s in charge of Tinley Park’s communications systems.
He recalled talking with Urban about his wireless service, called Urban Communications, and within two days the village was back online. Tinley had been linked to the Internet via a super-fast T1 line, and Cwodzinski said Urban’s wireless service offers comparable speed.
“It’s the same speed I was getting (before), and I don’t have phone line charges,” he said.
Urban Communications also has transceivers on top of its own office building, at 5320 W. 159th St., and on the roof of Re/Max Team 2000’s offices at 15607 S. Harlem Ave. in Orland Park.
The company recently signed an agreement with the Orland Fire Protection District to mount antennas on two of the district’s towers, including one next to the administration office at 9788 W. 151st St. in Orland Park.
The district is a customer of the wireless Internet service, which for now is used mainly for moving data between fire stations, Fire Chief Bob Buhs said.
“We did have DSL, but the problem was that it failed quite often,” Buhs said.
Re/Max Team 2000 needed Internet access to comply with a directive from the Multiple Listing Service of Northern Illinois Inc., said Roger Hug, co-owner and manager of the real estate agency.
The office was too far from one of Ameritech’s DSL-equipped switching stations, he said. Hug said he found out about the service from Urban’s father, who Hug used to work for.
“He said I should talk to his son about this new Internet service,” Hug said.
Re/Max became a customer about 1½ years ago. Hug said he’s considering hooking up the agency’s two other offices on John Humphrey Drive in Orland Park and Palos Heights.
“We have been very pleased with it,” Hug said.
Hemlock Federal Bank for Savings in Oak Forest has been using the wireless Internet service for nearly a year. A customer of the bank, Urban promised to refund Hemlock’s money if it wasn’t happy with the service.
“We felt there was very little downside” in signing up, said Mike Stevens, Hemlock’s president and chief financial officer.
“We are extremely pleased with it,” he said, noting it’s “dramatically faster” than the dial-up service the bank had previously. “It’s worked out real well.”
Stevens would like to have wireless Internet access at Hemlock’s branches in Lemont and Bolingbrook. The only problem is Urban Communications doesn’t have antennas that far west.
That might be changing soon, Ed Urban said.
“We are lining up towers to the south and west,” he said.
Because the Orland Fire Protection District handles fire dispatching for Mokena, Peotone and Romeoville, Urban is hoping his arrangement with the Orland district could lead to lease agreements with those other departments.
With wireless telecommunications companies willing to pony up tens of thousands of dollars annually to lease tower space for their antennas, Urban Communications has had to scramble to find spots for its transceivers.
“It was tough,” Ed Urban said.
A year ago he talked with Orland Park officials about leasing space on village-owned towers.
“They wanted $1,800 per month per antenna,” he said. “We don’t have the kind of scale (that a major wireless carrier has) to pay that.”
Urban wouldn’t say how many customers use the wireless service. There are a few residential subscribers despite the high initial cost.
For residential customers the monthly charge is $69.95, but equipment and installation fees can range from $499 to $900.
A business with a single computer connected to the Internet will pay less than $100 per month, while a larger company with multiple users might pay as much as $1,400 per month. Urban said he is running a special promotion for business customers, charging $499 for equipment and installation.
While he’s not about to turn down customers, Urban said he is taking a measured approach to building out the wireless network.
“We are going to control our growth based on what level of service we can provide,” he said.
By Mike Nolan
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