Ridgefield considers free public Wi-Fi for village
RIDGEFIELD — Calming contemplations, crazy conspiracies and cute kittens — they’re all online.
To ease access and speed availability of digital diversions, as well as online office access for work-from-the-coffee-shop types, Ridgefield officials are looking into offering free Wi-Fi throughout the village commercial district.
“A lot of communities are moving to offer free public Wi-Fi in their downtowns as a way to attract visitors and enhance the quality of life,” said Bobby Knight of the Economic and Community Development Commission.
“The result would be a faster, better, more robust internet experience for those in the downtown who are trying to get some work done, or looking to stream and use connected devices,” he said.
“We have 50 billion connected devices now in the world,” Knight said. “They need bandwidth to be powered.”
The plan is still in early stages, with a lot of practical details — including the cost — yet to be worked out.
“Researching the possibility,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi said.
The ECDC sees it as vital to the town’s economic growth.
“Why is this important to the town? It’s not just that it’s a nice amenity to have. We see the growing demand for a remote workforce,” Knight said.
“It’s estimated by 2025 one-third of the population will be working remotely. That could be from home, or from a coffee shop, or from a park.
“So, giving our residents and businesses the flexibility they need to work is going to be an important infrastructure component.”
Wi-Fi might be free to downtown Ridgefield users someday, but building and operating the system that makes that possible will come with costs.
“We don’t know what the cost of the potential project would be, because it would have to be engineered first,” Knight said.
It doesn’t have to involve stringing a lot of wires, which could be quite expensive.
“Not infrastructure, per say, but wireless antennas,” Knight said. “A similar concept to when you’re in an office and you have Wi-Fi — you have a wireless router.”
But the engineering if the system — and so, what it would cost to build and operate — are yet to be determined.
“I think we’d put the project out for bid and see what kind of ideas come back to us,” Knight said.
The goal is a system that’s easy for users.
“You would go on your laptop. You’d find an available Wi-Fi network, and it would say something like ‘Ridgefield free public Wi-Fi’ and there would probably be terms of service you’d need to click onto, and you’d be in,” Knight said.
Wi-Fi systems involve microwaves and electromagnetic fields, and for some this raises long-term health concerns.
It’s something the town should look into before moving forward with Wi-Fi installations, Knight said.
“All the studies say Wi-Fi is safe, but there is a growing chorus of concern about wireless signals and cellular signals,” he said, “so we owe it to our neighbors here in town to make sure that we look into it.”
As first selectman, Marconi attends meetings of the Western Connecticut Council of Governments, and he said the regional planning group is studying a number of questions people have about Wi-Fi, including health concerns.
“WestCOG has a task force that will be addressing the many issues associated with Wi-Fi and 5G,” he said.
Another possible benefit to the town would be the availability of “smart city services,” which can improve efficiency in areas ranging from traffic management to security, Knight said.
“Wi-Fi could potentially be used to power smart city services,” he said. “Communities that have smart city services are able to reduce the overall cost of delivering government services by around 10 percent. But I’m not so sure that number would apply in Ridgefield — a big piece of that number would be remote controlling of the streetlights.”
Ridgefield’s village doesn’t have that many streetlights.
The ECDC is at the stage of going around asking town boards, commissions and other officials what their thoughts are on the prospect of Wi-Fi. Knight appeared before the Planning and Zoning Commission on Tuesday, Jan. 28.
“We feel the internet is a utility,” Knight told the commission.
“We’re talking about free Wi-Fi in the downtown area. Who’s paying for it?” asked Commissioner Joe Fossi.
Knight described a variety of possibilities: having commercial landlords pay; using advertising on the system to pay for it; having the town foot the bill as part of its effort to make the downtown attractive to businesses.
“There’s a lot of discussion to be had,” Knight said.
“We will be appearing before the Board of Selectmen in this budget season.”
Another concern is that the town would be investing in a technology that would be eclipsed by the next technological improvement — the vaunted coming of 5G networks, for instance.
“If we were to have robust 5G today, I don’t think we’d be appearing before you to talk about a Wi-Fi project,” Knight told the commission.
ECDC chairman John Devine briefly discussed the Wi-Fi project with the Board of Selectmen.
If Wi-FI is available to anyone free in the village, and in Ballard Park, Devine said, Town Social Services Director Tony Phillips had asked if it could also be offered free to residents of the town’s Ballard Green senior citizens housing complex — it’s a luxury some of them can’t afford.
“It started as an economic discussion and morphed into a community discussion,” Devine told the selectmen.
The issues will be ironed out, Knight feels.
“There’s a number of things we need to look at: engineering costs, maintenance costs, health and safety factors, community needs,” Knight said.
“We see it as vital infrastructure, but how can we get the community to use it?” he said.
“We want to be sure, if the town is investing in a Wi-Fi project that its get used by the town and by residents, businesses and visitors, and that it’s properly operated and maintained,” Knight said.
“We want to be very thoughtful about this project.”