By Patrick McArdle
BENNINGTON — It’s a digital world, and visitors and residents alike can now get free access to it through the public Wi-Fi zone in downtown Bennington.
People using laptops, tablets and smartphones can connect to the Internet without a wired connection, even in a relatively rural area.
The amenity, developed as another way to bring people to Bennington and its downtown, will be celebrated Thursday during the Midnight Madness retail event.
Another downtown Wi-Fi hotspot will be launched July 23 in Barre.
John Shannahan, executive director of Better Bennington Corp., said he hoped Wi-Fi will enhance the downtown.
“The only asset that we have that the Internet will never have is the ‘Bennington experience,’” he said. “We want the experience downtown to be just so enjoyable, you just come here even if you’re not shopping, you’re not going out to eat (or) you have no plans. You just come downtown because it’s a comfortable, enjoyable place to be. Having free Internet access is a big part of that going forward.”
Michael Harrington, Bennington’s community and economic development director, said the Wi-Fi zone was developed with Better Bennington Corp. and funded and implemented by the Vermont Digital Economy Project and the Vermont Telecommunications Authority.
Free Internet access will also benefit the town because those who use it will be directed first to a website that describes the digital economy project and then a website about Bennington.
The latter site will include a map, news, a local events calendar and links to websites belonging to the town, the local Chamber of Commerce, Better Bennington Corp. and businesses that sponsor the access.
Economic development officials will also be able to collect information about who is using the service, how they’re using it and other data that will allow them to refine the experience for users.
“Overall, it’s a cool service that isn’t going to cost (Bennington taxpayers) any money at least for the first five years,” Harrington said.
The access, which is already in use, is available 24 hours a day and seven days a week. Harrington said sponsoring businesses will have an antenna allowing the Wi-Fi to reach throughout what is known as the town’s general downtown area, centered at the Four Corners.
Harrington said Bennington officials had been interested in providing free Wi-Fi access for some time, but found the cost prohibitive until two statewide organizations became involved.
The Vermont Digital Economy Project was created by the Vermont Council on Rural Development after Tropical Storm Irene to bring digital tools and services to Vermont towns and make local economies more resilient.
The Vermont Telecommunications Authority works to expand broadband and mobile phone infrastructure in Vermont, especially in its rural and under-served areas.
Caitlin Lovegrove, network and outreach coordinator for digital economy project, said Bennington was an eager partner.
“We’re happy to see that the zone is now getting used throughout the downtown area, providing yet another resource for keeping everyone in Bennington connected and engaged,” she said in a statement.
The ceremony will take place in front of the Bennington town offices at 7 p.m. Thursday. Because of Midnight Madness, a band will also perform at the town offices and many downtown stores will be open late and hosting special sales.