The Future Of Downtown WiFi
By Beth Milligan | May 2, 2019
Free public WiFi first came to downtown Traverse City in 2014, thanks to a partnership between the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) and Traverse City Light & Power (TCL&P). Midway through their 10-year agreement, leaders from both groups are now exploring potential new uses and improvements for the network – including expanding signal locations and bandwith, offering promotions for downtown merchants, using WiFi for projects like a downtown security camera network, and potentially expanding WiFi citywide.
DDA CEO Jean Derenzy is developing a business plan to help downtown better utilize its WiFi system. TCL&P covered the upfront costs of building a wireless mesh network in 2014 for $790,000, with the DDA agreeing to pay the utility back over the next decade. The project was intended to not only offer residents and visitors free WiFi while visiting downtown, but to help the DDA perform key functions more cheaply and efficiently. With the DDA obligated to pay $65,000 annually through 2024 to pay off the network, Derenzy wants to look at how the organization can “use (Wifi) as a better platform” to accomplish downtown goals.
“The feedback I’ve had is it’s not working as well as it should,” Derenzy told DDA board members at their April meeting. “We’re working with Light and Power to identify how that can improve.”
There are opportunities to improve the WiFi network from both a public and government perspective, Derenzy believes. On the public side, Derenzy as well as TCL&P leaders – including Executive Director Tim Arends and Chief Information Officer Scott Menhart – all acknowledge hearing complaints that downtown WiFi doesn’t work well, isn’t fast enough, or isn’t reliable. But Menhart says the system is dependable and working as designed. There are approximately 65 radio nodes providing signals throughout downtown Traverse City, stretching from Clinch Marina to as far south as Boardman Lake. The major challenge, Menhart says, is public perception: Users expect to be able to jump on the WiFi network anywhere downtown, including indoors, but the system is built exclusively for outdoor use.
“We regularly received calls from people who were residing at the Whiting Hotel (complaining that the WiFi didn’t work), or from people who complain that when you walk into a shop or business or the coffee shop, it doesn’t work,” Menhart says. “They’re not getting any speed inside because it was never intended to be used inside a business like that.”
Users also often think they’ve been dropped from the WiFi network when it times out after 60 minutes. That timeout is intentional, Menhart says, for the purposes of ad targeting. The DDA previously had a contract with MyNorth to sell ads on the network’s landing page, but that agreement is no longer active. Ads currently aren’t being sold for the landing page – a scenario that could represent a lost opportunity for both revenue generation and merchant promotion. TCL&P data shows that in the past 28 days, 3,760 users logged onto the WiFi network, with 1,099 users logging in over the past week. Arends says the original intent of the landing page was that those users would see timely promotions when logging onto the network, like a store discount being offered for only that afternoon to entice people walking downtown to stop by.
The WiFi network – and its advertising opportunities – are “things that have to be continually promoted, so people are aware it’s available,” Arends says. Derenzy agrees, saying the business plan would look at ways to increase ad revenue and/or better educate the public on where and how the WiFi system works.
The business plan – which Derenzy plans to bring to the DDA board for review within the next few months – would also focus on opportunities to use WiFi for new downtown projects, and identify whether the existing system could support those projects or if it would need to be upgraded. Upgrades could include expanding the number of radio nodes downtown, and/or paying for more bandwidth. One potential project the DDA is looking at is installing an expanded security camera network throughout downtown. Some security cameras exist now – such as in the parking garages and the alley behind Union Street Station – but a more robust network could cover most or all of downtown.
“I think it could be a huge benefit to public safety,” Arends says. During events like the National Cherry Festival, “there’s no way we have enough police to patrol” every section of downtown, Arends continues. He points to events like the Boston Marathon bombing, where FBI agents where able to use city surveillance footage of the race to identify the bombing suspects. “This is an asset (the police) can use…it’s very important,” he says.
As TCL&P prepares to potentially move ahead this summer with the first phase of construction on a citywide high-speed fiber network, the utility – along with the DDA and city commission – could eventually have discussions about expanding the WiFi network throughout the entire utility service area. Such a move would allow for free, open-air WiFi outdoors throughout most of Traverse City.
“There was talk initially when WiFi was discussed about (doing that),” Arends says. “I do believe with our expansion of fiber to the home or business, if it was the desire of the city itself or the Light and Power board to open this up to the entire service area, it would be more possible to do that, because we’ll have fiber everywhere.”