The Town Council passed a resolution Tuesday night to permit the town manager to explore the feasibility and cost of expanding high-speed public wireless Internet service throughout West Hartford Center.
By Ronni Newton
The West Hartford Town Council is interested in exploring what it would take to make West Hartford Center a seamless Wi-Fi zone, and Tuesday night authorized Town Manager Ron Van Winkle to find out more details.
The vote to move forward with the research was 5-3 along party lines, with the three Republican Council members voting against it. Mayor Scott Slifka was absent from the meeting.
Van Winkle said earlier Tuesday that he can’t even ballpark the cost without further research – although he doesn’t think it will be extraordinary – and anticipates that the town would have to erect antennas and purchase equipment and then obtain a connection to a carrier. Connection costs would likely be ongoing, he said.
“It wouldn’t be a secure connection, but it’s something meant to give the opportunity for more economic development in the Center,” Van Winkle said. “You wouldn’t want to do your taxes on it,” he said, but those who live in the zone might not otherwise need to purchase Internet service.
“We already have Wi-Fi in the library, and they have it at places like Starbucks,” said Van Winkle. Creating a Wi-Fi zone would allow anyone in the area to connect and remain connected to a free service, and they would not need to sign in and out as they move from place to place.
West Hartford Chamber of Commerce Vice Chairman Dave Calibey told Council members that enabling new business models would make West Hartford a more desirable place to do business – which along with enhancing life in the community is one of the Chamber’s goals. He said that having a Wi-Fi zone is no longer cutting edge or “bleeding edge,” and West Hartford can learn from other communities that have already done it.
“Internet connectivity is no longer something we just like to have,” said Connecticut Technology Council Board Member Elliot Ginsberg. He said it’s how we “work, bank shop – frankly how we communicate.”
Mike Mahoney, owner of real estate leasing and management company RLM Co. which has its office in West Hartford Center, said he is very much in favor of the idea. A letter he wrote in support of public Wi-Fi was read to the Council by West Hartford Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Barbara Lerner.
“I think it would be great to have free Wi-Fi all over West Hartford,” Mahoney said. “It’s just another amenity to add to the already great things we have in West Hartford. It would make it easier for existing tenants as well as visitors to connect to the Internet,” said Mahoney.
Deputy Mayor Shari Cantor said that public Wi-Fi “would require additional investment but like a road, like sidewalks, like public rights of way that allow businesses to be successful, it’s a requirement now. Many things we do require fast, reliable Internet.”
“We’re trying to figure out how we can best serve our community so we don’t have empty storefronts, empty residences,” Cantor said.
Council member Judy Casperson cited the benefits of public Wi-Fi to seniors who may not be able to afford their own service, or to students who would be able to do their homework more effectively.
All three of the Republican Council members disagreed that public Wi-Fi would make West Hartford more desirable. Minority Leader Denise Hall said she thinks there are other things on which the town should spend its time and money, and said that connectivity is not lacking in West Hartford.
“I just don’t think it’s the role of town government to provide these services,” she said.
Chris Williams said that while he “appreciates the desire to maintain West Hartford as a cutting edge town,” he doesn’t think adding a Wi-Fi zone will accomplish that. He also said that it really would not be free because it would be paid for in our taxes so ultimately West Hartford residents would be subsidizing its use by those doing business here.
Republican Chris Barnes said the resolution “tries to solve a problem that doesn’t exist and shifts the burden” to taxpayers.
Council member Ben Wenograd disagreed about the role of government in installing public Wi-Fi. “In this particular case we are talking about fundamental infrastructure. We build roads, build sidewalks … more than that we also provide an educated population for our schools,” he said.
The support of the Chamber of Commerce is an indication that creating a Wi-Fi zone would be seen as business-friendly, not government competing with the private sector, Wenograd said.
Beth Kerrigan said the Council isn’t trying to decide right now whether to spend taxpayer money on new infrastructure. “We’re talking about giving Ron Van Winkle authorization merely to evaluate the opportunity and the need,” she said.
“Once we’re more educated we can make a thorough evaluation about whether it’s a good idea, bad idea, or something in between. I think a lot of us hope that Wi-Fi hotspots in the Center are going to be beneficial,” added Leon Davidoff. “If we don’t explore these opportunities we’re not even going to find out about it. Let’s take that next step, let’s evaluate the idea,” he said.
While the resolution addresses only looking into adding a Wi-Fi zone to West Hartford Center, if the Council eventually decides that it makes sense, the plan would be to add other zones throughout town.
“Presumably if we were to this we would then look at adding it to different areas as well, not just West Hartford Center,” Van Winkle said.
West Hartford already owns a fiber-optic network that was installed more than a decade ago as a venture by businessman Arnold Chase, who donated the network and data center to the town when his other plans for the infrastructure never came to fruition. Although that network does not impact the West Hartford Center public Wi-Fi, many Council members also spoke about the desire to explore putting it to use for high-speed connectivity for West Hartford residents and businesses.
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