North Carolina infamously became the 19th state to enact barriers to community broadband, but we wrote about a loophole to it last year - communities can provide services for free without interference from the state capital. And starting last year, Newton, with 12,968 residents, began offering free Wi-Fi among 48 blocks and has plans to expand.
The city leaders were looking for ways to revitalize downtown. Jason Clay, the City IS Director, wanted to provide free outdoor WiFi as a way to get residents out and into the heart of the city. He had explored the possibility in the past, but the high cost was always a barrier. Initial estimates were between $50,000 and $150,000 to install free Wifi.
Clay put in time researching the products that would work for their situation. Rather than pay a consultant to do radio frequency and engineering studies, he did the work himself. By shopping directly with Meraki and Ubiquiti, Clay found significant savings. He even enlisted the help of the city's electrical crew and Information Services staff to install the needed devices. Where did they put the equipment? On city poles and water towers. Free WiFi in Newton is truly an initiative fueled by ingenuity, determiniation, and some elbow grease. From Joe DePriest's Charlotte Observer article written when the network went live:
"I knew the equipment was out there and that we had to find out which one fit our needs," Clay said. "So I kept digging and researching, trying to take the mystery out of it. When you take the mystery out of anything, it's usually just a lot of smoke and mirrors anyway. I kept at it. And we came up [with] some pretty cool stuff."
In a September city press release:
“Currently the City has surplus Internet bandwidth so it just makes sense to share it with the citizens,” he [Clay] said. “We do have bandwidth limitations set so the free Wi-Fi cannot interfere with City data traffic.”
In addition to visitors to the city's downtown area, the network is used by city employees to monitor the electric grid and water supply and for public safety purposes. The City plans to expand the use of the network to real time public safety purposes and for employees that are in the field, including GIS, street division work, and public works purposes. Also in the press release:
“The City found it too costly to provide cellular data cards to all of the city’s mobile workers,” Clay related. “By owning the wireless network, the City will have the flexibility of expanding the system, controlling the security, and managing the capacity. Plus, the area’s 3G coverage is spotty and 4G isn’t even here.”
The goal, according to Clay, is to expand the wireless network to all areas in the city limits. Currently, areas served are in the downtown business district, at the City pool, at Jacob Fork Park, and inside City Hall.
Downtown businesses see the value in offering free WiFi. In addition to using the network for commercial purposes, business leaders consider it a boost to the atmosphere and the local economy. In the Observer article:
Mayor Pro Tem Anne Stedman, 54, who runs the Trott House Inn Bed & Breakfast on North Main Avenue, sees the free access as one tool to boost the heart of the town she grew up in. At 13, she delivered The Hickory Daily Record in a thriving downtown, stopping for ice cream or a cherry Coke at H&W Drug. Free wireless alone won't restore the town to its old glory, but Stedman thinks it's a step in the right direction. "Newton has never lost its charm," she said. "This is a way to help put the spirit back."