Little City downtown gets wifi

VERGENNES — Free wifi now blankets downtown Vergennes, courtesy of the eVermont grant the city won in 2010. The Bixby Free Memorial Library served as the lead applicant for that grant, with support from the Vergennes partnership.
Wifi service extends on Main Street from just east of Vergennes City Hall westward past the Bixby, and also southward down Green Street to the Vergennes fire department.
Equipment that provides the service was recently installed in the Foote’s Insurance Agency building at the corner of Main and Green streets. Insurance firm head Doug Hawley and his brother Mel Hawley, the Vergennes city manager, co-own that building and agreed to let Comcast use the structure, Mel Hawley said.
Additional broadcast nodes called repeaters are on the outside of the building and on City Hall, Hawley said.
Hawley cited as logical users of the free wifi service “people just sitting in the park,” restaurant customers taking advantage of sidewalk seating, riders waiting at bus stops, and travelers looking for directions or information about local services and businesses.
He believes the free Vergennes service, which is comparable to a recently installed one in Bristol, is part of a growing trend.
“For downtowns wifi should just be part of the infrastructure. It should be just a given,” Hawley said. “More than likely over time it will become the norm.”
The service is not free to the city, however, although the grant paid for the initial installation and hardware.
Vergennes Partnership Executive Director Tara Brooks said the partnership is paying Comcast $1,000 a year for the broadband service. In turn, those funds are coming from the city’s $5,000 contribution to the partnership.
Those who want to take advantage of the service will not find it a difficult process, Brooks said. If they turn on their smartphones, laptops, netbooks or tablets, the service will appear.
“If they have a device it should pop up, and it should direct you to the Vergennes Partnership website, and then you can go to where you want to,” she said.
Users’ privacy is protected, but Brooks said the partnership can track volume and general trends about those who log on. In the first month, the service averaged 25 or 30 users a day, with a spike up to 80 on Memorial Day.
“We have regular users, but about a third of them are people passing through town,” she said.
That research may in turn help bring the cost down to the city and the partnership. If the partnership can demonstrate the service is driving customers to local firms, the organization will sell ads on its website.
“Our plan is to track if we’re sending business to people,” Brooks said.
The partnership hopes eventually to extend wifi to the Otter Creek basin and another group of potential customers, the hundreds of boaters who motor up the river every summer to moor at city docks for free. Brooks said additional repeaters will be necessary, possibly on the Bixby and the city-owned Pumphouse in the falls, to broadcast the signal far enough.
The repeaters would come with a price tag of $600 to $800 each, but might be worth the investment in the long run, she said, if the service helped lure more boaters downtown.
“We want to attract them to come up into the city,” Brooks said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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