Chapel Hill WiFi Pilot needs different Hotspots

Tonight Tomorrow night the Chapel Hill Town Council will hear a staff proposal for a WiFi pilot project. This project has been a long time coming. One of the first reasons it was proposed in 2005 was to increase equal access to the Internet for all citizens. Former Council Member Edith Wiggins made it clear that if WiFi were to be offered to any part of the community it should include Pine Knolls and Northside. Here is a video of all five locations that will be proposed. None of them are in Northside or Pine Knolls, none will be available indoors, and three of them are in parking lots.

Attached to the Wireless Pilot project memorandum is a pdf. Its called Wireless hotspot survey of downtown Chapel Hill [PDF]. (please read it) Part of this is a map that shows where the Town IT department conducted its survey of existing Wireless Hotspots. It also plots on the map ‘Potential Town Sites’ for wireless hotspots. There are five proposed spots, A thru E.

A is parking lot #2, B is parking lot #5, C is the IFC Shelter and Community Kitchen, D is the Wallace Parking deck, and E is the Post Office.

Based on the intent that Town wireless hotspots are to serve ALL people, several of these spots seem poorly selected. The argument put forth in the memorandum are technical ones. Such as there are already so many wifi hotspots on Franklin Street that interference would prevent the location of a Town wifi hotspot. These are legitimate concerns but can be overcome. No where does it mention how real people will use these wireless hotspots.

Three of the five proposed spots (A, B, and D) are auto parking areas. How would these spots serve citizens? With laptops in cars? Lawn chairs and laptops in parking spaces? The most likely use is real time credit card processing at the town’s parking meters. I believe this is a secondary or tertiary use for Town wifi. The primary use should be direct Internet access for all citizens.

Location C at the IFC Shelter and Community Kitchen is an excellent idea but based on the information in the memorandum is set up to fail. Here’s why.

From the memorandum:

The hotspot service would be open to all users on a “best available” basis; meaning that there is no guarantee of bandwidth, no round-the-clock maintenance support, and no on-line or dial-up user support. The type of antennae envisioned are designed for outdoor use and may not provide sufficient signal strength to penetrate buildings or allow users to connect beyond a few hundred feet.

How will anyone inside the IFC building use the WiFi? How are residents of the IFC shelter or guests going to use the WiFi? Without some kind of technical computer support and access to quality computers this WiFi hotspot could not be successfully used. Maybe the IFC has a plan to partner with the Town to provide these resources. I bet the Town IT department has other plans.

Location E at the Post Office has the same drawbacks as a hotspot at the IFC building. How would the teen center in the basement use this WiFi? The front of the Post Office is a public gathering place but hardly one where someone hangs out with a laptop. What does the Town IT department plan to use the hotspot for? Parking enforcement on Franklin Street?

The best spot of the five proposed locations is D – the Wallace parking Deck. The structure has a large public outdoor space on its roof. Sadly it is underutilized. The largest groups of people I have seen there is during the annual Hi Mom! film festival. If the Town spent some time and money its possible this location could become a popular spot to find Internet access. But the fact remains this is a parking deck. Wifi in this location would most likely be used for internal town use. Not the primary goal of providing Internet access.

I recommend that Mayor and Council ask the Town Manger and IT Manager to consider new wifi hotspot locations where any citizen can comfortably congregate. One such location is the Hargraves Recreation Center in the Northside neighborhood. This is a town building with the technical requirements to locate a wifi hotspot. Lets begin our first pilot project in a location that people will use and has a chance of success.

You can get a real idea of the spots on the Survey map by watching this video.

Cross posted from Orange Politics

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