Traverse City Record-Eagle

Opinion

February 26, 2013

Editorial: DDA needs to push Wi-Fi

Traverse City’s Downtown Development Authority should do everything it can to get a municipal Wi-Fi network up and running by the time the tourists arrive in force this summer.

The DDA has about $622,000 budgeted for the project. Estimates now are that installation will run about $350,000 to $400,000 with costs to maintain and operate the system on top of that.

“We’re hoping to at least start the installation sometime in the summer,” said DDA Deputy Director Rob Bacigalupi. “We’re hoping parts of it will be (up and running) by mid summer while we’re installing the rest of it.”

Having Wi-Fi available for visitors is no longer just a marketable amenity. With the proliferation of electronic devices and a host of internet-based social media commonplace, visitors expect connectivity. Wi-Fi availability might have been considered a bonus just a couple years ago. Today it’s a must.

DDA Deputy Director Rob Bacigalupi said coverage would include the entire association district and extend to Clinch Park Marina, which already has its own WiFi. “Having Wi-Fi outside, if they want to check their mail and don’t want to burn up minutes on their cell plan, we can accommodate that.”

The DDA should make it a priority to ensure that service is also available at Clinch Park Beach and all areas of the Open Space used during the National Cherry Festival in early July. Visitors who frequent the food court, the beverage pavilion and the entertainment stage are most likely to be the people who are looking for Wi-Fi connectivity, and the DDA should do what it can to accommodate them. The volleyball courts just west of the Open Space are another natural Wi-Fi hotspot.

The DDA is wisely looking for ways to defray costs, in part by wireless phone companies paying fees to buy into the city system’s bandwidth. “(W)hat we essentially do is lease out some of that network to third-party providers like AT&T and Verizon,” Bacigalupi said. The DDA heard of a similar project in Vail, Colo., that had individual wireless providers paying $5,000 monthly. Those companies can use the DDA’s Wi-Fi system to help keep bandwidth available for their cell phone customers during peak times like the Cherry Festival.

The city will also seek bids for a contractor to handle advertising sales to downtown businesses and restaurants.

This must be just a first step. Ambitious plans for regional Wi-Fi service, which have seemingly stalled, must move ahead.

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