Free public Wi-Fi — wireless Internet access for cell phones and other mobile devices — in downtown Ridgefield received tentative support from the Economic and Community Development Commission (ECDC) Monday night.
“You have one hub — which would be in town hall — and then you have a series of booster-receivers that go around, so we could do all of the village” as well as Ballard Park, said John Devine, vice chairman of the ECDC.
According to Devine, the system would cost about $25,000 to install, and then $10,000 per year in upkeep.
Devine said he was inspired by a recent trip to Waterville, Maine, which installed free public Wi-Fi a year ago.
“It makes a difference, and once you do it you have marketing capabilities that you can start leveraging,” said Devine.
ECDC member Gus Ryer asked whether the advent of 5G networks — the next generation of cellphone networks that promise faster Internet connections — would make the investment obsolete.
“If Verizon’s offering that, and eventually you realize it’s going to come here and AT&T is going to follow — why spend the twenty-five grand for Wi-Fi in the village that people are going to be more and more skeptical of?” said Ryer. “I don’t sign onto strange Wi-Fi networks, they’re not secure, and why spend $10,000 a year on something that might be obsolete in five?”
Devine argued the system would still attract users, because it would offer speeds similar to a 5G network without eating into users’ data allowance from their cellphone carriers.
“It will have the same bandwidth as 5G … What you’re offering is unlimited free data,” he said.
Even for a small town like Waterville, public WiFi attracts users.
“The median income of Waterville is $40,000, they had a 127,000 users,” Devine said.
Chairman Arnold Light seemed in favor of the idea, but didn’t think the town would support the cost.
“It’ll be a tough sell for the Board of Selectmen,” he said.
“Well, we should stay ahead of it,” said Devine
ECDC member Amanda Duff said she was also concerned about the security of a public network, but asked if there would be an opportunity for marketing through popup ads when users login.
Most public Wi-Fi at coffee shops and other venues have a popup that forces users to agree to the network’s terms and conditions before they can connect.
Those popups also typically include some advertising for the business.
Duff suggested that if businesses supported the cost of running the Wi-Fi network, they could “own the landing page” that users see when they log on and accept the terms and conditions of using the network.
The login could also allow restaurants or other businesses to acquire email addresses, which users would use to sign in.
“Email addresses are gold these days — or Facebook likes,” said Duff. “Most hotels, in order to connect you have to like their Facebook page or leave a review.”
“Let’s just keep working on it,” said Devine, who suggested there might be grants available from Eversource or wireless carriers that would offset the cost.
“It’s happening with or without us,” Devine said, “other towns are implementing it.”