BARRE — You probably won’t be able to watch Netflix in City Hall Park, but surfing the Internet from your laptop, tablet or smartphone without doing a number on your data plan could soon be an added attraction to historic downtown Barre.
Plans to create a free, public Wi-Fi zone in the city’s central business district could come together quickly and a “wireless mesh network” supported by excess bandwidth kicked in by willing Barre businesses may be ready to launch by Memorial Day.
Last week members of the city’s information technology committee met with a representative of the Vermont Digital Economy Project to discuss the potential for doing in downtown Barre what has been done — free of charge — in a growing number of Vermont communities over the past several months.
Caitlin Lovegrove told committee members the price is right, the city is eligible, and the clock is ticking because the program, which was launched by the Vermont Council on Rural Development and funded with an 18-month federal grant, is scheduled to end in July.
Designed to help bridge the “digital divide” in communities that were hard hit by flooding three years ago, Lovegrove said the project has already facilitated public Wi-Fi zones, similar to the one being discussed in Barre, in eight towns from Bethel to Wilmington, while establishing wireless “hotspots” in six other communities, including Killington and Stockbridge.
Four other Wi-Fi projects — the nearest one in Waterbury — are now in the works, and Lovegrove said if Barre wants to be added to a short list, which includes Bennington, Newfane and St. Albans, that decision needs to be made by the end of the month.
The committee is more than a little interested and, from the sounds of it, a touch envious of communities that were quicker to react to the opportunity.
“If Royalton has one (a free Wi-Fi zone) we need to get one,” committee member Jeff Tuper-Giles said.
That was the unanimous view of the three-member committee, which needs to discuss whether the city, the Barre Partnership, or some combination of the two would actually own and be responsible for moderating and maintaining a wireless network that — without additional private investment — would encompass City Hall Park and extend as far north up North Main Street as four strategically placed outdoor access points can bounce a shared signal.
Committee chairman Lucas Herring, who walked the downtown with Lovegrove and Dan Jones of the Barre Partnership before the meeting, predicted the proposed network would encompass the core downtown area and likely extend — without any independent upgrade — just beyond Espresso Bueno.
According to Lovegrove, since the first of the public Wi-Fi projects was launched in Bethel last summer the networks have generated a fair amount of use. More than 20,000 distinct clients have logged on in one of the zones or “hotspots” and have collectively transferred nearly 1,700 gigabytes of information, she said.
Because all of the public networks are relatively new and many are in very small towns, Lovegrove said there are significant swings in average daily usage. She said the “hotspot” in Marlboro is averaging about 10 users a day, while Bethel’s Wi-Fi zone is now averaging 168 unique users a day.
Due to its size and the volume of traffic that flows through its downtown on a daily basis, Lovegrove predicted usage of the Wi-Fi zone proposed for Barre wouldn’t take long to take off.
“In a town like this I expect it (usage) would explode pretty quickly,” she said.
With the program nearing an end, Lovegrove said she will need an answer from Barre soon.
“We’ve got to move quickly on this one,” she said.
Lovegrove said a consultant could come and do a site survey in an effort to identify optimal locations for access points and reach out to building and business owners to determine if they are interested in participating.
Assuming four suitable locations can be locked down, Lovegrove said the hardware could be installed and ready to launch by the end of May.
Lovegrove said the city and the partnership could develop a “landing page” that would include yet-to-be-determined terms and conditions users must agree to and create an opportunity to promote local businesses and events.
According to Lovegrove, the landing page can be a useful tool to reach out to tourists traveling through the community, as well as people who live and work here.
Herring said the committee will need to meet one more time to finalize a recommendation that he expects will be submitted to the City Council for its consideration in the next couple of weeks. Though there could be some debate about which entity is responsible for the system, Herring predicted the committee would recommend the city take advantage of the opportunity.
“The equipment is free, the installation is free, it’s kind of a no-brainer,” he said.
Lovegrove said while restrictions limiting bandwidth usage — likely preventing people from watching movies on their mobile devices — are common, and Barre could choose to shut the network during certain hours, it could not ever password protect it or charge people to use it.
“You have to keep it free and open to the public,” she said.
Provided the licenses are renewed when they expire in five years — a combined cost of $600 for the four access points that have been proposed – those agreements would cover replacing and upgrading any hardware. The grant won’t cover the cost of additional access points, though they could be added if the city, the partnership or private businesses were interested in expanding the proposed Wi-Fi zone. The cost of each access point is approximately $1,400.
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