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Everyone wants Wi-Fi, but who pays?

Municipal models offer options, barriers to access

Sunday, April 10, 2011
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Nida Pellizzer, a senior at Skidmore College, takes advantage of the free Wi-Fi at Saratoga Coffee Traders in downtown Saratoga Springs on March 29.
Nida Pellizzer, a senior at Skidmore College, takes advantage of the free Wi-Fi at Saratoga Coffee Traders in downtown Saratoga Springs on March 29.

— Wireless Internet is spreading throughout the Capital Region.

What was once a scarce technology that was looked at as a potential economic development tool has become almost ubiquitous at coffee shops, hotels and even car dealerships. Drive down almost any city street in the region with a laptop or other mobile device and a scan for Internet networks will reveal available Wi-Fi access.

But most of the growth in Wi-Fi appears to be private networks set up by companies and individuals, and they’re not always easily accessible. Most networks are protected by passwords or reserved for the customers of a particular store. The dream of downtown Wi-Fi available to anyone on the street still proves elusive, despite the spread of wireless access in the private sector.

Interactive Wi-Fi map

To view wireless Internet locations around the region, click HERE.

In 2006, Schenectady was part of a push by the state to promote government-subsidized wireless networks. Schenectady’s Metroplex Development Authority received a $73,000 state grant and provided $146,000 in matching funds to set up a downtown Wi-Fi network. Schenectady was one of two dozen communities that received the Wireless Communities/Wired Buildings grant from the Empire State Development Corp.

Metroplex partnered with Schenectady-based Logical Net to set up the network. The initial idea was to provide one hour of free Internet service and then charge $6.95 for a 24-hour pass or $24.95 for monthly access. Logical Net President Tush Nikollaj said that since the network was set up in 2006, it hasn’t generated much revenue.

“You get an hour of free access, so if you get on and use only 10 minutes, you’ve still got the rest of the hour to use later. Most people get on and do what they have to do and get off without using all of the time,” he said.

Metroplex Chairman Ray Gillen said the economics of wireless Internet access have changed dramatically in the five years since the network was set up.

“Technology grew so fast now, and free Internet is so readily available now. Consumers expect it to be free. At restaurants and hotels and coffee shops, almost everyplace has free Internet. It shows how fast technology grows; to look back at 2005 and 2006 when we wanted to charge $6.95, that’s almost laughable now,” he said.

Free downtown wireless Internet access isn’t as widely available in Schenectady as Gillen suggests, but Wi-Fi networks have spread through the area. A walk down State Street in Schenectady near Proctors shows that there are more than a dozen different wireless Internet networks besides Metroplex’s Logical Net network. But only one of them, the Parker Inn’s Wi-Fi, is open for public use. The others are protected by passwords. And the Metroplex network doesn’t seem to work very well in the heart of downtown.

Free, with a catch

The Muddy Cup, the cafe inside Proctors, used to offer free Wi-Fi access, but not anymore. Proctors bought the coffee shop in January and renamed it Apostrophe, and now customers have to make a purchase to get an hour of free Wi-Fi, manager Joy Albert said.

“When there was free Wi-Fi, people were sitting there all day long and not purchasing anything. The only way to stop that was to put a restriction on it. Now they aren’t sitting there all day long and we’re getting a better group of people. It’s just gotten so much better,” she said.

While many venues, including chains such as Starbucks and Bruegger’s Bagels, have begun offering Wi-Fi access to customers, some have resisted the trend for exactly the reason Proctors restricted access — fear of the Wi-Fi loiterer.

Stewart’s Shops Marketing Director Tom Mailey said his company competes directly with coffee shops that provide Wi-Fi. He said Stewart’s has discussed installing Wi-Fi but has always decided against it. While Stewart’s Shops have booths that people sometimes use to drink coffee and read a newspaper, in general the stores have more of a fast-paced customer tempo, fundamentally different from a coffee shop hangout, he said.

“We need to be fair to the other customers. Our people come in and get their food or sundae or coffee, and if they stay, it’s for a short while and then move on. We’re not a salesman’s stop for him to sit there and use us as his office,” he said.

In theory, the Metroplex wireless network stretches from Nott Terrace to Schenectady County Community College and Union Street to Interstate 890, but signal quality is far from uniform. Gazette reporters using mobile devices found the network inaccessible at some locations, such as near Proctors, but functional in other areas, including the intersection of Jay and Franklin streets.

Gillen said signal strength remains an issue in some places within the network and Metroplex will be addressing that problem. He said some of the interference may have been caused by the construction of the Center City building.

Policing and pay models

Metroplex’s focus for the network has evolved from a customer model to providing wireless Internet access for a system of security cameras used by the Schenectady Police Department, Gillen said.

Rick Voris, an investigator for the Schenectady County district attorney, said Metroplex’s Logical Net infrastructure makes police cameras much less expensive to use. Before, the department connected police cameras to the Internet using Time Warner Cable connections to each camera, which also required monthly fees per camera. With Logical Net’s downtown wireless antennas, the department was able to increase coverage from five 70 cameras, and it’s still expanding.

“From a conviction standpoint, this system has saved us a lot of time in court because it’s hard to dispute things when you’re seeing them on camera,” Voris said.

Nikollaj, of Logical Net, said his company doesn’t charge the police department for use of its antennas for the wireless security camera system; once the infrastructure for a wireless network is built, it doesn’t require that much revenue to maintain.

Albany’s wireless company uses an opposite approach, charging the police and offering the public free service. Albany’s system, called Albany FreeNet and operated by Tech Valley Communications, uses revenues from the Albany Police Department to help maintain a “sustainable wireless network” that is free for the rest of its users, said Jeffrey Mirel, Tech Valley Communications’ director of wireless services.

Mirel said Albany FreeNet was launched in 2006 with a $200,000 state grant and had a pay model very similar to Metroplex’s, granting one free hour of use and then charging per hour after that. The initial network ran down State Street from the Capitol to Broadway and also covered the north and south sides of Broadway and Pearl Street.

Then Tech Valley Communications received a second state grant, this one for $625,000, which enabled it to expand the network into some of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, including Arbor Hill, West Hill, the South End and parts of Delaware Avenue.

Mirel said the grant also allowed Tech Valley Communications to upgrade, increasing its speed and signal strength. He said they scrapped the paid access model last spring.

“We found that the one-hour limit was really too constraining, too constricting. We really wanted to provide 24-hour access, but what we do have is a 200-megabyte data limit per day [per device],” he said.

Tech Valley Communications estimates that Albany FreeNet has 25,000 user sessions per month and averages 4,000 unique users per month.

Roadblocks to access

Since the state’s fiscal problems began a few years ago, the availability of grants to establish downtown wireless networks has dried up.

In 2008, Joanne Yepsen, who represents Saratoga Springs on the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors, formed a committee to study the feasibility of free wireless Internet access for the downtown of her city. She said the effort went nowhere when the state grant program supporting such networks was eliminated.

Yepsen said there are some restaurants and other stores that offer Internet access downtown, but she thinks Saratoga Springs may fall behind other cities that have more broadly available Internet access.

“I think this city, for telecommuters, for low-income people, for tourists, for all users, is lacking in a comprehensive plan for technology and technology and Wi-Fi availability. Wi-Fi is very spotty ... for Saratoga Springs, and it’s not aiding the customer or the small businesses in its current form,” she said.

In Fulton County, Frontier Communications set up wireless Internet networks for the downtown areas of both Johnstown and Gloversville in 2007.

Frontier General Manager Todd Rulison said users in either downtown area can purchase a one-day pass for $5, a two-day pass for $15, a seven-day pass for $23 or a 30-day pass for $30. He said Frontier’s broadband customers can also purchase unlimited access to both downtown networks for $9.99 per month. Frontier provides free Wi-Fi access at Fulton County’s tourism center in Broadalbin.

“The wireless networks are making money, and in addition to that, they help differentiate us from our competition. It’s something that’s unique to our offering,” Rulison said.

The spread of wireless Internet access has been slow going in Schoharie County.

Jason Becker, manager for the Middleburgh Telephone Co., said his company recently came close to but missed getting a major federal grant that would have enabled it to provide high-speed Internet and wireless Internet connections throughout Schoharie County. He said his company still plans to create some wireless networks in some parts of the county, like downtown Cobleskill and Richmondville, and might look to Frontier’s pay system as a model. Becker said he’s skeptical of the sustainability of Wi-Fi networks without a revenue source.

“How do you pay for the infrastructure? This is one of the areas where we’re against municipal-owned networks. Telecom businesses are in the business of telecom for a reason. You’ve got to make money at the end of the day to maintain that network,” he said.

 
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