Downtown Wi-Fi: The Latest

TRAVERSE CITY – As another year comes to a close, the question remains: Will free wireless Internet ever get off the ground in downtown Traverse City and, if so, who will provide that service?

The Downtown Development Authority (DDA)'s Wi-Fi Committee was slated to meet again late last month (after the TCBN went to press) to look at options.

"We're not necessarily going with Traverse City Light & Power (L&P) – that's something we're investigating," said Rob Bacigalupi, deputy director of the DDA. "Our options boil down to Light & Power's proposal or bidding it out ourselves" to another provider.

The DDA and L&P have been discussing a plan to place free Wi-Fi downtown since 2010. Last spring, L&P submitted a proposal to the DDA that it would purchase and install the Wi-Fi system, and the DDA would reimburse L&P, interest-free, over a 10-year period.

"They would provide everything – installation, maintenance, the Internet connection and some degree of support," Bacigalupi said.

TCL&P already has the Wi-Fi technology in place; it installed a fiber system a few years ago and made sure its LED lights could do dual service when they were installed last spring.

The DDA's hang up, however, is the cost: "Mainly, it's dealing with the large price tag, which is $625,000-ish."

It took steps toward Wi-Fi last spring when it asked the City Commission to amend two tax-increment financing (TIF) plans, making funding possible for several downtown improvements, including broadband and wireless technology services.

Wireless service would be available throughout the DDA's two TIF districts, which run from the Holiday Inn to the Warehouse District and south to Old Town.

Users would likely be limited to 30-45 minutes of free Internet per day, Bacigalupi explained, or would be required to log back on after a certain amount of time.

"That way, it's convenient for the visitor using it for a few minutes, but not convenient for a business downtown," he said. "We don't want businesses to use it too much because that'll overrun the system."

Bacigalupi said the DDA is also investigating the idea of accepting advertising on the system – "mainly because it could pay our bill," but added it would need to be careful about what types of businesses advertised.

The Village of Kalkaska has offered limited free access throughout its business district since last fall.

"Kal-Fi" users can surf the web for 30 minutes a day at the lowest speed, or buy a daily, weekly or 28-day subscription for better access, said Kal-Fi Committee chairman Jonathan Upleger. Boardman River Communications, a local cable TV system in Kalkaska County, provides the wireless service.

Upleger had this advice for Traverse City's DDA: "They have to have someone who can get out and get subscribers and advertisers. Like any good business, you need to find a way to market it."

Northwestern Michigan College (NMC) was involved in early discussions with the DDA and others about the downtown wireless, but Craig Mulder, NMC's executive director of Learning Resources and Technologies, said it was more about "possible wireless solutions and how they could provide external wireless service" for its Great Lakes and main campuses.

"We never had the position that we would support wireless downtown," he said. "Rather, we wanted to see if our ability to participate in a solution for our students could make a broader solution possible for the DDA, as well."

Both Charter and Merit Network Inc., a nonprofit corporation owned and governed by Michigan's public universities, provide NMC with Internet services.

The Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce – also part of those initial talks – is now focused on getting broadband out to counties still grappling with slow dial-up.

"While we supported the downtown TC connection, it really involves the DDA and TCL&P, since they own the infrastructure," said Laura Oblinger, the Chamber's chief operating officer. "Our study showed gaps in the rural communities and we've partnered with the Northwest Michigan Council of Governments (NWMCOG) to seek grants to assist communities like Frankfort, Empire and Kalkaska."

In fact, a grant from the Chamber and NWMCOG helped the Village of Empire establish free Wi-Fi last April.

And now, the City of Frankfort is on the broadband-bandwagon, placing free Wi-Fi along its Main Street and Lake Michigan beach corridor, thanks to a recent $12,500 grant from the "New Designs for Growth: Community Growth Grants" program.

Until free Wi-Fi becomes a reality in downtown TC, there are a number of "hot spots" happy to oblige grateful customers.

"It's hard to put a number on the percentage, but it's a big draw for our business," said Brew co-owner Sean Kickbush, who supports the idea of spreading wireless downtown. "I'm surprised it hasn't happened sooner and in more cities. It seems like such a great idea."

Wi-Fi might play a big role in downtown parking, if the DDA decides to eventually convert some or all of the city's parking meters to credit-card-accepting smart meters. The DDA is investigating the concept and hopes to discuss Wi-Fi at its next board meeting Nov. 16. BN