One of the most requested items in our application was the “downtown Wi-Fi Zones and Hotspots”. As a member of the Millennial Generation, the benefits of having a free and public wireless zone are intrinsic to my mode of operating. A public internet connection means that there is one more place where I can connect to a world in which I feel comfortable, where I can research the closest good restaurant, look at pictures from my friends’ adventures, and find out quickly whether Nicholas Cage was in Con Air without using up megabites on my data plan. (He was.)

But aside from allowing people to check in on Foursquare or send that essential email, there are many other benefits to having a free public Wi-Fi zone. Recently, as I have been revisiting towns whose zones were implemented as part of e-Vermont, and also talking to towns eager to put in their own zone, I have discovered some real benefits to free public internet access:

Disaster Relief:

The grant we received from the Economic Development Administration is based around disaster relief. As we have been touring towns, we have been asking them how they coordinated after Irene. What we hear are impressive stories of collaboration, on-the-spot organization, and general helpfulness from everyone involved. That being said, many communities also discussed the difficulties in getting correct messages out to everyone. Communication methods ranged from daily meetings to printed newsletters, updated municipal websites, and local radio stations.

A prime example of how the town got together after Irene is Royalton, where townspeople gathered on the green the day after the storm, because they were not sure what else to do. Eventually, a volunteer system was implemented at the school, and a website called “Operation Revive Royalton” was set up so that people could get organized. However, in the first few days there were many questions flying around, and rumors spread about what roads were closed and where the electricity was shut off.

In cases like this, the benefit of a public Wi-Fi zone is that in a disaster situation, it does not take much power to make sure it is still running. A small generator or solar panel will do the trick. In addition, using the software to control the zone, the zone’s administrator can add information to a page viewed initially by anyone using the Wi-Fi zone, which could easily be used as a means to spread information about where to volunteer or get help, what roads are closed, and what supplies are needed. If Royalton’s green had had free Wi-Fi on that day after Irene, people might have been able to begin coordinating their efforts even more quickly than they did. Wi-Fi zones can become a key part of communication in a post-disaster situation.

Education and Digital Literacy:

We received applications for Wi-Fi zones from towns who either directly or indirectly talked about the Digitial Divide: where some members of their communities are being left behind because they don’t have access to internet or computers. Libraries are making great strides towards helping to stem this issue, and in fact, one of our projects, the Internet Interns, helps community members become more accustomed to computers. But even libraries have closing times.

We have heard stories of students driving 10 or 20 miles to idle outside of a closed library and use its Wi-Fi. We have also heard of people buying pizza from a restaurant with free Wi-Fi just so they can check their email. A free and public zone would always be running, and would not necessitate a pizza purchase (although it can still be a benefit to businesses within the zone if people become hungry while using the internet!) It would allow students to find a place where they can do their homework close to home, and where others can check their email, or even apply for a job.

Tourism and Town Promotion:

Woodstock was one of the first towns in Vermont to create its own wireless zone throughout its downtown area. Townsend Belisle was a key proponent of its implementation, and one of his driving motivations was to have Woodstock become a destination town, instead of a pretty place to drive through. As he himself stated in his presentation, people recognize that a town is “cool” and “hip” when their iPhone dings an announcement of a free wireless signal as they drive through. That free zone gives them a motivation to stop and explore the town more, and also allows the town to be recognized as a forward-thinking place, where new ideas and technology are welcomed.

In addition, the zone can be set up so that a landing page is seen by everyone who begins to use the free zone. This page can have a calendar of town events, a listing of local eateries, and a page on things to do in the town. This happened in Ludlow. In a village of just 800 people, in busy weeks their free Wi-Fi zone is used by more than 1500 individuals. Most of these users are from out of town, meaning that they have stopped in at one of Ludlow’s restaurants or stores and decided to log on to the zone. They might just want to check their email, but each of those visitors will see what else the town can offer them as well.

In addition to helping to bridge the digital divide and becoming a communication tool during a disaster, a Wi-FI zone can send a signal that a town is informed forward-thinking, and ready to welcome positive change. I look forward to helping towns implement these zones over the next year and a half!