Whole Village Area Would Be Served
By Jennie Marx
The Bethel Business Association hosted a presentation on the downtown Bethel public Wi-Fi grant April 17 at the former Breaking Grounds building.
The town applied for the technology grant, which came from the Vermont Digital Economy Project, and got the news on March 29 that it had been approved. The grant will cover five options that the town selected, including the library, front porch forum, assistance for businesses and nonprofits, and developing programs that would benefit agriculture and sylvaculture business, in addition to the public Wi-Fi project.
Caitlin Lovegrove of the VDEP described the scope of the grant, the technology of public Wi-Fi, and its ongoing benefits to the town.
Lovegrove began with a basic description of Wi-Fi—a radio frequency that transmits wirelessly to various devices, such as laptops, smartphones, or tablets, allowing the user to access the internet. This frequency can be projected over a specified area, such as downtown Bethel, and users can access it for free.
The hardware used for this would be unobtrusive outdoor repeaters, each measuring about 10.5 x 7.6 x 2.2 inches, mounted to specific buildings downtown. Each repeater (which can also act as an access point and gateway) is weather resistant and uses minimal power. The grant will provide $5,000 to pay for four repeater units.
Once the Wi-Fi is set up, anyone within its zone of operation would be able to access the Internet from their mobile device. The town of Bethel would be able to design and operate the “splash page,” the first page the users see when they sign onto the system. This page is great for advertising businesses and events, and keeping it updated is easy. It promotes tourism, as well as lessening the “digital divide” between people who have Internet access and those who do not.
Lovegrove also pointed out that the initial purpose behind this Wi- Fi project was emergency response and disaster relief. The splash page could be updated with emergency information, and the system would provide needed communication when other forms are down.
Bethel would join the small but growing number of Vermont towns to offer free public Wi-Fi. According to Lovegrove there are eight towns so far, including Woodstock and Poultney, which, since it has about the same size downtown as Bethel, served as a comparison in her presentation.
Jonni Huntley Spaulding, presi- dent of the Randolph Area Chamber of Commerce, expressed her wholehearted support for public Wi-Fi in Bethel. Noting that the RACC is not just for Randolph—it encompasses 11 local towns, including Bethel— she applauded Bethel for being so “forward-thinking” about the Wi-Fi project, and hoped that other towns will follow.
The public Wi-Fi network would be monitored by a volunteer designated by the town. The software would allow this person to track the speed and other characteristics of the connection, and put in place certain limitations to avoid abuse of the system. Justin McCoart, of Up and Running Computer Services in Woodstock offered to take on this role. McCoart, who lives in Bethel and is a new member of the BBA, is already familiar with Woodstock’s public Wi-Fi system.
The VDEP grant would cover the installation and hardware, and the licensing of the software for an initial number of years. Bethel would be responsible for licensing after that time, as well as paying for an Internet service provider, such as Comcast or ECFiber, and web hosting.
Lovegrove and others present discussed how these costs could easily be covered by businesses looking to “sponsor” part of the project, and receive advertising or publicity in return.
Lovegrove and McCoart heard concerns from representatives of the public library regarding whether the public Wi-Fi would negatively impact the library, which has its own Wi-Fi system. McCoart discussed some different options with them, including placing the repeater in a different location.
BBA Chair Neal Fox and Vice Chair Llalla Shahar offered suggestions as to how public Wi-Fi could benefit BBA members in particular, especially through the splash page.
Overall, the mood was very positive and excited. People coming through town search for Wi-Fi access points, and having one in Bethel would encourage them to stay in town longer. The Wi-Fi system would leave plenty of opportunity to expand if Bethel desires to, including the possibility to connect with nearby towns that have Wi-Fi to create an even larger network for business promotion.