Traverse City Record-Eagle

December 20, 2011

Newsmakers: Downtown Wi-Fi project in works

Service may be up and running by next July

By vanessa Mccray

---- — Editor's note: Newsmakers 2011 recounts and updates stories that made headlines in the Grand Traverse region during the past year. Today: Downtown Traverse City could have wireless Internet by summer. To read this series in full as articles are published, visit

TRAVERSE CITY-- Wireless Internet could be up and running in downtown Traverse City by July.

Traverse City Light & Power and the city's Downtown Development Authority continue to work on plans to install wireless Internet in the downtown's two tax increment financing districts, where tax-captured dollars would help pay for the project.

Wireless service would follow the zigzagged map of the districts, which includes Front Street, the Warehouse District and areas in Old Town.

Light & Power Executive Director Ed Rice expects a consultant to report back in January or February concerning legal regulations. Wireless could be in service by July 1, if the project receives the various required city approvals. Utility board members continued to express support for the project at a December meeting, Rice said.

"There's some details that need to be worked out. (We'll) put those together, go to our respective boards," said Rob Bacigalupi, DDA deputy director. "The DDA will want to know what they're getting exactly, as will Light & Power."

The DDA board and city commission this year amended tax increment financing plans to allow money to be spent on wireless Internet. The DDA budgeted about $686,000 to repay Light & Power over future years for construction, maintenance and other associated costs. Rice estimated construction could cost $250,000.

How users would access the Internet remains to be finalized. The service could be complimentary, supported by advertisements or time-limited.

Bacigalupi said wireless access is valued by visitors, residents and businesses.

"If you have a smartphone, you are often limited on the amount of data you can use, so you're often looking for that Wi-Fi spot to not run up your data plan," he said.

Laura Oblinger, chief operating officer for the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber's own broadband initiatives focus on rural areas in surrounding counties where slow dial-up service makes "it very hard for businesses that need to be able to participate in the global economy," Oblinger said.

She hasn't heard complaints from downtown Traverse City businesses about lack of wireless there.

"(There are) several private sectors that have a wireless signal, a wireless hotspot," she said. "It's fairly easy to go downtown and have access to wireless."

While not its focus, the chamber supports the city's pursuit of the downtown project.

"We're all for it. There's no way this can be a bad initiative," she said.

Computer users frequently work from a counter window at Horizon Books in downtown Traverse City, where the store has offered customers wireless Internet service for years. Horizon's Amy Reynolds said providing Internet aligns with the bookstore's "community center" mission, and she supports the city's "future-looking" effort to spread wireless throughout downtown.

"We're in total support of that," she said. "I just think that's going to be really important."