Providing free wireless networking for downtown Traverse City has been debated here for years. In the end, what may drive the creation of the region’s first public network may be garbage cans and parking meters.
Big plans for statewide Wi-Fi networks have come and gone, including one for a network that would to include much of downtown and stretch all the way to Northwestern Michigan College.
That may soon change. The Traverse City Downtown Development Authority has approved a plan to contract with Traverse City Light & Power for 10 years of wireless networking that would cover the entire downtown and waterfront. The free wireless component would only cover outdoor areas.
Surprisingly, it isn’t the desire to allow beach-goers to surf the web that is driving the $790,000 investment.
Instead, DDA officials said their decision is more about improving government services and diversifying the downtown’s future business mix than tourism. In particular, they mean parking meters.
The DDA wants to eventually install “smart” meters that will accept parking payment by credit cards. The meters require a link to a credit card processing service through either the Internet or cellular phone network.
DDA member John DiGiacomo, who helped lead this latest Wi-Fi push, said it would cost about $21,000 a year for the cellular service option. The system also could handle security cameras or provide emergency communications for law enforcement.
The system will activate Light & Power’s dark fiber network, which directly connects to the Internet. Wireless access is the first step to providing dedicated fiber lines that can attract businesses that deal in large chunks of data, DiGiacomo said.
The system could also signal when downtown trash cans need emptying.
That’s a lot of money. But making the downtown more business-friendly is one of the things the DDA is supposed to be all about; a hard-wired downtown could be a make-it-or-break-it draw for the kind of businesses that should be the region’s future.