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Consider WiFi hotspots

Expanding Broadband Access

Many people in the U.S. take high-speed internet service (broadband) for granted, but it’s a necessity for businesses, community services, and individuals who work from home. Most of Maine’s remote coastal communities and islands don’t have access to fast, reliable internet, which puts these communities on the wrong side of the digital divide and out of contact with customers, clients, and visitors. The lack of broadband negatively affects everyone: businesses, fishermen, students, municipal services, residents, and visitors. Many coastal and island residents are working together to solve this problem by identifying and implementing improvements to infrastructure to support broadband, while raising awareness of the challenge and the ways that broadband can be used to improve business efficiency, workforce development, and quality of life.

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Providing public access to the internet for your community’s residents and visitors is a great way to boost the quality of the experience they have, and the economic activity that occurs, in key areas of the community.

Setting up WiFi hotspots in downtown or other public areas is a fast and cost-effective way to bring the internet to residents and visitors. Another way to support commerce and education among community members is a mobile WiFi program at the library or other institution, which allows the internet to be “checked out” for the day or week.

 

HOW IT WORKS

Public WiFi hotspots are set up from a point of connection to the internet and electrical service, such as a town hall, business building, visitor center, etc. Having people connect through the public WiFi means that that individual businesses or institutions don’t have to share their own internet connection but still get to benefit from their customers or constituents being online.

For example, a business can run credit cards with confidence, while customers post photos of their meal online or share the business’s location/website with friends on social media. While people come to WiFi hotspots, mobile WiFi devices go to the people. These are small routers that connect the internet from cellular networks to your computer or other devices. Mobile WiFi hotspots provide affordable (free) internet for students to do homework from home, for families and elders to access health services, for young adults to get an education online, for the workforce to do extensive job searches or obtain training online, and for community-wide events in locations without wired internet.

 

Q&A WITH AXIOM TECHNOLOGIES CEO MARK OUELLETTE

Why would a community be interested in the idea of offering public WiFi?

The point of this kind of connection has two big positives: While not meant for daily use, a hotspot is a place where people who don’t have an internet connection could get a connection 24/7 — it’s about equal access to all. The other point is to provide connectivity to people passing through; it’s a way for your community to be viewed positively, for example, by those who work downtown or visitors to the community. It can also build a recognition of the importance of internet connections more broadly throughout the community.

 

A few communities across Maine have implemented public WiFi hotspots. What outcomes were important for them as they planned these projects?

Machias wanted to support the farmers’ market and nearby pop-up businesses, which use Square or other payment options for customers, and where a lot of people are walking and shopping. They wanted an outcome of people using the WiFi, so we track how many users and how many unique, individual users there are. In South Portland, it’s all about the gazebo at their park — it’s about bringing the internet to the people, or attracting people to certain areas like the downtown of Millinocket. For Chebeague, the place was where people are waiting, and connectivity on the boat ride to and from the island was goal.

 

Are communities or others concerned about users taking advantage of the free service?

Some internet service providers think that free public WiFi eats away at their potential market base, but Axiom doesn’t see this to be true, largely because it’s inconvenient to the user. There can be a limit on the amount of data used. One cap is the total capacity of the system, but one user can still hog the bandwidth, so you can cap individual users to 2-3 gigs, or limit the time they can be connected to a half hour or so before a reconnection is required. There’s also another option: a paid-for service where users have to pay a few dollars for so many hours of service, or pay for higher speeds/bandwidth. That could be attractive to campgrounds, festivals, or marinas.

 

What do communities need to consider in choosing the hotspot location, and what about cost?

The location of the hotspot has to have a good internet connection, and be in a central location for the potential users of the WiFi. The upload speed/bandwidth is important for the users’ experience of the connection: Users want to upload photos and posts, and pop-up businesses want to run credit cards.

In the first year, the cost of setting up the system is about $3,000; every year there are maintenance costs of about $80/month. Finally, there’s the subscription to the internet service. Businesses interested in being sponsors are coming to Axiom asking what communities would be ready to implement a public WiFi hotspot. Businesses have an interest because the landing page upon connecting to WiFi could be an advertising spot, and the signage recognizes the sponsors. Sponsors can be businesses, local organizations, municipalities, internet service providers, or some combination thereof. For Machias, Bangor Savings Bank covers system cost, and Axiom absorbs the internet subscription cost. Sometimes local economic development organizations sponsor the system cost and/or the internet cost.

 

So how has having a public WiFi hotspot mattered?

Well, Machias has loved it, and is actually looking to do more hotspots. The successful use has also lead to discussions about a larger broadband project connecting all homes and businesses. For Greenville, it’s been a great catalyst, very cheap and quick to set up as well, for raising connectivity concerns beyond the hotspot location. Hotspots can help build momentum toward a larger broadband project, by creating ways to experience the benefits of better internet connectivity.

 

CHALLENGES

  • Existing networks. If there isn’t broadband in the area to set up public WiFi hotspots, or there isn’t good cell phone service in the area where mobile WiFi devices would be used, then the lack of these networks would need to be addressed first. See the tab “Assess Infrastructure Options” for ideas on to address infrastructure needs.
  • Negotiating and partnering with service provider. See the “Assess Infrastructure Options” tab and the example “Work with an Incumbent Provider” for the best practices on approaching a service provider about public WiFi hotspots. They can help you determine how many hotspot locations you need to set up for the area you’re hoping to cover. Much of these best practices would also apply in determining the best service level for mobile WiFi devices to meet the community’s needs. Offering these devices often results in a monthly bill for service, much like a cell phone bill.
  • Covering the cost of the WiFi Hotspots. Like any broadband, there are many ways to fund hotspots (see the “Fund Broadband Projects” tab for more ideas). For public WiFi, the community may seek sponsorships from area businesses. Mobile WiFi hotspots also incur some cost associated with staff training, and time toward training patrons and troubleshooting, in addition to setting up policies in the case of damage, loss, or theft.
  • Spreading the good news. Once hotspots are available, people need to learn about it, so they can start using the internet. Identify community members or entities that can help with outreach efforts. Information in the tab “Engage the Community” may be helpful in planning outreach.

 

RESULTS

  • Through a grant, Washington County libraries were able to initiate mobile WiFi programs. Cherryfield, Jonesport, Calais, Steuben, Lubec, and Eastport all have libraries that participated in the Checkout the Internet Project.
  • With Axiom Technologies, Machias is taking a proactive approach to developing their Downtown WiFi by seeking additional businesses to sponsor more hotspots, which are identified with physical signs that also advertise the sponsoring businesses.
  • The City of South Portland uses their information technology budget to offer free WiFi in key parts of the city.
  • Greenville is going through a larger economic development planning process that internet connectivity will be a central focal point.

Originally published February 2017

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