Traverse City Record-Eagle

September 12, 2013

Downtown Traverse City could host free Wi-Fi

By BRIAN McGILLIVARY bmcgillivary@record-eagle.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Two city agencies will move ahead on a proposal to build a free-to-the-user Wi-Fi Internet system to cover downtown Traverse City and the Open Space at an expected cost of $500,000 to $600,000.

Board members for Traverse City Light & Power instructed their staff to work with the city’s Downtown Development Authority to create a formal proposal. It’s the first time the utility board has given any direction on an idea that’s been kicking around since last decade.

“It’s been discussed ... for years but it’s never gotten too far down the road and the board’s never been asked to take a position publicly,” said Tim Arends, executive director for TCL&P.

TCL&P would construct the system over the winter and pay up-front costs. The DDA then would reimburse the utility over a 10-year period, plus operating costs of about $30,000 a year.

“This is an amenity to folks downtown, local visitors or visitors from afar,” said Rob Bacigalupi, DDA interim director. “We need to continue delivering what the expectation is, and that’s a high-quality experience and that means having the amenities people expect.”

Downtown business owners offered mixed reaction. They like the idea but question the cost.

“Obviously, it’s great for the tourists and I think a lot of people would use it, but that’s a lot of money that could be put to better uses,” said Lauren Creighton, owner of Love Traverse City.

A better use, from Creighton’s perspective: directing funds to more trash pickup in the summer to keep the downtown clean.

Nate Farran, operations manager of M 22, also noted it’s a lot of money and wondered if free Wi-Fi might have a negative impact on coffee shops and other businesses that use it to entice customers. But he considers it a good thing for the city and most businesses.

“The coolest thing about Traverse City is it’s been innovative and up-to-date with technology,” Farran said. “It’s the cool city of northern Michigan and free Wi-Fi helps that a little bit.”

The system also could have municipal government uses for both agencies, such as the use of smart parking meters that could accept credit cards or smart electric meters that could be read over the Internet. But neither agency has yet committed to using those technologies.

That leaves the benefits less quantifiable, Bacigalupi said.

“In the end that’s what we will be talking about,” Arends said. “Is this a benefit to the community?”

Legal objections raised by TCL&P board members Barbara Budros and Jan Geht could delay or scuttle the project. Both are lawyers and disagree with positions by city attorney Lauren Trible-Laucht and TCL&P attorney Peter Doren that the utility has the legal authority to provide telecommunications services such as Wi-Fi.

Utility board members agreed to hire an outside legal specialist to resolve the issue if the lawyers can’t work it out among themselves.