Why Create a Wi-Fi Zone?
We helped downtown areas create public Wi-Fi zones for a number of reasons that revolve around economic development, including the ability to promote local businesses on a splash or landing page, the attractiveness of free Wi-Fi to tourists, the fact that having this kind of connection “signals” to outsiders that a town is forward thinking, and, finally, the opportunity for those who might otherwise not be able to have the internet at home (whether this is because there is no option for a fast connection, or whether they simply cannot afford one) to access the internet from a broad area.
You can read more about why a community might want a Wi-Fi zone in this article The Benefits of Public Internet Access
How to Create a Wi-Fi zone
The implementation of Wi-Fi zones in downtown areas was begun through the e-Vermont program, which used a model pioneered in Woodstock Vermont to create Wi-Fi zones in 7 Vermont towns. This service was in such high demand, that through the Vermont Digital Economy Project, another 16 Wi-Fi zones were created, along with 10 hotspots.
e-Vermont communities reviewed several options for how to provide Wi-Fi zones in downtown. At the time three main models existed in Vermont:
- Wireless zones created by a Wireless Internet Service Provider – Great Auk Wireless (GAW) has set up several of these zones, including in e-Vermont Community Newport.
- Wireless zones set up by a company that use existing Internet Service Providers Summit Technologies has established these zones in places such as the Burlington International Airport and rest areas along the Interstate.
- Wireless zones set up by local volunteers as a “Do It Yourself” model Wireless Woodstock provided the model for this approach in e-Vermont.
e-Vermont followed the “Do it Yourself” model, as did the Vermont Digital Economy Project. This is what is described below.
While more intensive, this approach ensures that a community fully backs the project, and by incorporating more voices into the project, more individuals know about it, understand it, and begin to support it. It is also usually cheaper, though it is most successful when there is a dedicated coordinator who can manage the process.
What is Wi-Fi?
From a user’s perspective, most smart phone users have limits on the amount of data they can download on their phones, and to use it, they need to be within range of a tower (which can be challenging in some rural areas). Often, given the choice between joining a free local Wi-Fi network or using up data (which they pay for), users will opt for the free Wi-Fi. Currently, data plans can be expensive!
Meshing: the Difference between a Wi-Fi zone and a Wi-Fi hotspot
Most home Wi-Fi systems come out of one router. This Wi-Fi can be referred to as a hotspot. As you walk around your house, the farther you get from your router, the lower the signal is. Some houses may have two routers, but when you select which network to connect to, you’ll see two different options for connection (one for each router). As you move from, say, the first floor to the second, if you have two routers, your computer will have to disconnect and reconnect to a new network. With a mesh system, on the other hand, several devices are installed which “talk to each other.” By using devices that mesh, we can create a Wi-Fi zone, which is different from a hotspot primarily in the amount of area it covers.
To create a “wireless mesh” we install several pieces of hardware that talk to each other and serve to create a zone. They mesh with each other, meaning that as you walk through the zone, your smart phone or computer will pick up the signal from whatever hardware you are closest to without disconnecting from the one you are leaving behind and asking you to reconnect to a new area. The result is a larger area with very good signal throughout. If you’ve ever been to a hotel or an airport with Wi-Fi throughout the entire building, it is almost certainly created through a mesh network, with a number of devices “repeating” the signal between each other (and meshing) so that you can have a seamless experience.