Written by Veronika Vigliano

Why is WIFI important in our community?

Why is WIFI important in our community?

One of the items that was most requested for, is our application known as the “downtown Wi-Fi Zones and Hotspots”. As a member of the millennial generation, the benefits of having a free and public wireless zone are intrinsic to one’s mode of operating in this era. A public internet connection means that there is one more place where you can connect to a world in which you feel comfortable, and where you can research the closest good restaurant, look at pictures from your friends’ activity, and find out quickly whether Robert de Niro was in Con Air without using up megabytes of your data.

But aside from enabling people check in on Foursquare or send out that urgent email, there are many other benefits to having a free public Wi-Fi zone. Recently, as I and my team members revisited areas whose zones were implemented as part of e-Vermont, and also talking to people in towns that are eager to put in their own zone, we then discovered some real benefits to free public internet access viz a viz;

Disaster Relief

The grant that we received from the Economic Development Administration, is pegged around disaster relief. As we have been touring these towns, we kept questioning them on how well they were able to coordinate after Irene. The answers we got from their responses are impressive stories of collaboration, on-the-spot organization, and also general helpfulness from everyone that was involved. A lot of communities also discussed on the difficulties in receiving the right messages and communicating it to everyone. Communication methods therefore, ranged from daily meetings to printed newsletters, updated municipal websites, and also local radio stations.

An example of how the town got together after Irene is Royalton, and this is where townspeople gathered on the green the day after the storm, and this is as a result of them no knowing what else to do. However, a volunteer system was implemented at the school, and a website that is known as Operation Revive Royalton – it was set up in order for people to get organized. In the first few days, there were many questions that were flying around, and there were also rumors that spread about the roads that were closed and also where the electricity cut off.

In situations like this, the benefit of a public Wi-Fi zone is that in a disaster situation, it does not take much power to make sure it is still active. A small generator or better still a solar panel will do the magic. Furthermore, making use of a software to control the zone, therefore the zone’s administrator can add information to a page that is viewed initially by anyone using the Wi-Fi zone, and this could easily be used as a means to spread information about where to volunteer or get help, especially what roads are closed, and what supplies are needed. If Royalton’s green had had free Wi-Fi on that day after Irene, the people might have been able to begin coordinating their efforts faster than they did. Wi-Fi zones can become a key part of communication in a post-disaster situation.

Education and Digital Literacy

We have received applications for Wi-Fi zones from towns hat spoke about the Digital Divide viz a viz where some members of their communities are being left behind simply because they don’t have access to the internet or computers. However, libraries are making great strides towards helping to stem this issue, and in fact, one of our projects, the Internet Interns, thereby help community members become more accustomed to computers.

We have also heard stories of students who drive as far as 10 or 20 miles to idle outside of a closed library and make use of its Wi-Fi. Also of people buying pizza from a restaurant with free Wi-Fi just so they can check their email. Essentially, a free and public zone would always be running, and would not necessitate a pizza purchase, it would also enable students find a place where they can do their homework much closer to home, and where others can check their email, or better still apply for a job.

Tourism and Town Promotion

It is no news that Woodstock was among the first towns in Vermont to create its own wireless zone throughout its downtown area. Townsend Belisle was a key proponent of its implementation, and one of his driving motivations was to have Woodstock become a destination town, instead of a pretty place to drive through. As he himself stated in his presentation, people recognize that a town is cool or rather hippy when their iPhone dings an announcement of a free wireless signal as they drive through. That free zone gives them the motivation to stop and explore the town some more, it will also allow the town to be recognized as a forward-thinking place, where new ideas and technology are welcomed.

In addition, the zone can be set up in such a way that the landing page is seen by everyone who begins to make use of the free zone. This page can also have a calendar of the town events, a listing of local eateries, and as well as a page on things to do in the town. This happened in Ludlow. In a village of about 800 people, during busy weeks, their free Wi-Fi zone is used by more than 1500 individuals. Most of these users are from out of town, which means that they have stopped in at one of Ludlow’s restaurants or stores and decided to log on to the zone or rather they might just want to check their email, but each of those visitors will see what else the town can offer them as well.

In addition to helping bridge the digital divide and becoming a communication tool during a disaster, a Wi-Fi zone can send a signal that a town is informed that is forward-thinking, and ready to embrace a positive change. We look forward to helping towns implement these zones over the next year and a half.

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