Bristol soars into digital era with free Wi-Fi

BRISTOL — Grab a mobile device, head to downtown Bristol and unplug, because Bristol’s free Wi-Fi network is officially open to the public.
Funded by a 2010 e-Vermont grant, Bristol is leading a statewide trend as the first Addison County town to offer free, public, wireless Internet in its downtown. A Vergennes Wi-Fi network, also funded by e-Vermont, should be up and fully functional by the end of the week, said Phil Petty, e-Vermont community manager. And David Clark, who is leading the Middlebury downtown public Wi-Fi project as Director of the Ilseley Library, said Middlebury should have downtown wireless by the end of the year.
Bristol’s network, which runs from the town green down Main Street, hosts a series of access points, or wireless transmitters, that seamlessly function together.
“Theoretically, you could walk from the park to the end of Main Street, and you would be in constant contact to the Internet and wouldn’t lose your connection,” said Petty.
The e-Vermont grant paid for all of the equipment manufactured by the company Anaptyx, the installation, recent troubleshooting, surveys and Internet until July. After that, the network will run for the next year on the $1,200 allocated by taxpayers to the Lawrence Memorial Library at town meeting.
The Bristol network first got up and running in November, but its connection has been spotty, and it has gone offline on several occasions. The issue, explained Petty, was that some of the access points weren’t synching up with each other. After troubleshooting the problem, e-Vermont realized that the transmitters weren’t the same model. The problem was recently corrected and since then the town has enjoyed contiguous downtown wireless.
Even before the network was fully functioning, Bristol residents were logging in at unusually high numbers, said Petty.
“Although all of the access points weren’t working effectively … the number of people jumping onto the network was greater than any of the other public-access networks (serviced by e-Vermont across the state),” he said. “It’s probably an indication of how tech-savvy a lot of people in Bristol are.”
Bristol’s Lawrence Memorial Library has offered free 24-hour wireless since 2004. Nancy Wilson, library director, said she realized there was a need for the downtown network when she noticed residents sitting on the library steps and outside in their cars into the wee hours of the night.
“I’m all about access, and I thought we should have more access for more people,” said Wilson.
That’s why, beginning May 1, the Lawrence Memorial Library will begin offering iPads and netbooks for members 18 or older to use outside of the building in three hours spurts.
Wilson, who spearheaded the implementation of Bristol’s new network, is part of a three-person committee that will monitor the network. The other committee members are Carol Wells, director of the Bristol Downtown Community Partnership, and Ian Albinson, a local graphic designer.
The network, which runs at a download speed of 2 megabytes per second (mbps) and an upload speed of 1 mbps, does have restrictions.
The Bristol system enables the committee to keep close tabs on users. While they won’t know who an individual user is, they’ll be able to identify how much bandwidth a particular user is consuming, among a range of other information. If a user is weighing down the network by downloading a bandwidth-heavy file, like a feature film, the committee has the ability to shut the user’s Internet off.
“We will block people who use too much data, (which) takes away from other people,” said Wilson. She said that no official policy has yet been adopted to deal with such issues, and the committee plans to cross that bridge when they come to it. Youtube videos and other small files should not weigh down the Bristol network, said Petty.
While Wells expects the network to help local businesses and organizations, hoping that it brings more people downtown, it is not meant to replace business networks. 
“It’s not really designed to be the sole Internet source for a business,” she said. “It could be a backup.”
When Town Administrator Bill Bryant’s work computer crashed the other month, he was glad the Holley Hall access point was working.
“I had just gotten a laptop … and I brought it to work to see if I could connect to the Wi-Fi here, and my computer happened to go down that day,” he said. “So, while that was down, I was still able to check e-mail and work on my personal computer.”
Thanks to one Bristol business, the town’s network is more robust and expansive than those in other towns, said Petty. The Bristol Bakery and Café volunteered to hook their connection up to the network to provide another source of Internet further down Main Street.
“Now we have two places where the Internet is being injected into the network,” said Petty. “If you only have one insertion point into the network, the farther you get from the source — in this case Holley Hall — the more the signal degrades.
“With the Bristol bakery being part of the network, there is an additional gateway into the network, which should make that network work better, and that is different than any of the other (networks in the state) currently.”
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected].

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