Traverse City News and Events

Free Downtown Traverse City WiFi Finally Coming?

March 21, 2014

A long-gestating project to bring free WiFi to downtown Traverse City could finally be going online.

This morning, the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) Board will consider a proposed agreement with Traverse City Light & Power (TCL&P) to implement significantly expanded wireless capabilities in the downtown district. TCL&P would cover upfront costs to the tune of $790,000 for the project, which calls for the installation of radio nodes to create a wireless mesh network utilizing the company's existing fiber infrastructure. TCL&P would then recoup its expenses over a 10-year period from the DDA.

The new system could provide free WiFi for residents and visitors in downtown Traverse City and the Open Space, capable of accommodating up to 27,500 users simultaneously. DDA Executive Director Rob Bacigalupi wrote in a memo to board members that “WiFi is a feature that other downtowns...have been adding as a basic utility, just like lights and running water.” In addition to helping visitors avoid data charges from their cellular carriers, “WiFi provides a vehicle for wayfinding and promoting events and possibly even businesses downtown,” according to Bacigalupi.

Users will be directed to a landing page where they can find downtown maps and event information, he adds, noting that the page offers “advertising opportunities that could result in some offsetting revenue.”

Leelanau-based Aspen Wireless Technologies would supply the nodes and other wireless equipment for the project, and monitor and maintain the network on an ongoing basis. For its part, the DDA would use funds from two tax increment financing (TIF) districts to cover its investment. Since TIF 2 is expected to expire in 2016, the DDA would frontload a contribution from TIF 2 and 97 for $275,000 for fiscal year 2014-2015, then make subsequent payments of an average $65,000 annually from TIF 97 for the remainder of the contract period.

DDA board member John DiGiacomo says that more than just a consumer benefit or economic development incentive, a new WiFi system would allow the DDA to perform key municipal functions more cheaply and efficiently. In the future, for example, the DDA could face a projected $21,000 annually in cellular charges resulting from parking pay station transactions; conducting the business over WiFi would be significantly cheaper.

“We can start to use it for other purposes as well,” DiGiacomo says. “We can add security cameras downtown. We can put sensors on trash cans to collect data and figure out when to schedule pick-ups. WiFi is an infrastructure improvement that lets us offer government services that are much more efficient.”

Lars Kelto, owner of Lars Kelto Technology Services in Traverse City and founder of one of the first local community wireless groups more than a decade ago, consulted on the downtown WiFi proposal. He agrees it offers cost-saving and possibly revenue-generating opportunities for the city, describing it as a “future-proof plan” due to the system's adaptable technology.

He notes that down the line, the DDA could possibly explore money-making opportunities such as leasing broadband to major events and festivals, or charging mobile carriers with increasingly congested networks to use the city's WiFi system to offload some of their traffic.

Should DDA board members support the WiFi proposal, it will proceed to the TCL&P board for review and authorization. A final agreement would come back to the DDA for approval in April. Attorneys for both organizations have already signed off on the proposed agreement.

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