Salisbury Mulls Offering Free Downtown Wi-Fi

SALISBURY — Following the success of other communities, such as Berlin, the city of Salisbury is considering adding free Wi-Fi to its downtown.

Officials hope that the Internet accessibility will serve as an economic driver and encourage visitors into the downtown area. To manage the new service and other technology needs, the city will also contemplate adding a new network administrator to its Information Technologies (IT) department.

IT Director Bill Garrett briefed the City Council this week on what he believes free Wi-Fi downtown could do for Salisbury.

“It would grow the infrastructure downtown,” he said. “It would provide a service to the citizens that might bring more people in from out of town.”

With a first year cost of $20,745, the Wi-Fi system would provide coverage from the Government Office building south to where it would mingle with the public library’s Wi-Fi. There would be a recurring annual cost of $4,800 and a five-year licensing fee of $3,396. The signal would be carried by rooftop antennas, which would prevent any mess on the ground, Garrett told the council. 
“There won’t be any eyesore; there won’t be any unsightly cables or construction,” he said.

A building owner allowing an antenna to be placed on the roof would enjoy the benefits of the Wi-Fi service without noticing any negative effects from the installation, promised Garrett. Getting the system in place should only take about two weeks once the process begins, he added, and the network will be its own entity that will not risk any compromise to the city’s government net.

“It is a completely separate system. There is no chance of any kind of security vulnerabilities whatsoever,” said Garrett.

For all of its benefits, the addition of the system would mean more work for the IT department, which Garrett revealed is already understaffed. He asked that the council consider adding a network administrator to his department that not only would help manage the Wi-Fi but would take on daily work the city has traditionally subcontracted.

“Right now, we use a vendor in town to outsource, I’d say, 90 percent of our help desk tickets,” Garrett said.

Garrett recommended moving $19,000 from the vendor fund to help cover the expense of a new hire. Once that $19,000 is factored in, the cost to the city for the new employee would be about $38,617 by Garrett’s calculations.

“Being able to have somebody that could take some of that high network load off of me would be incredibly beneficial to allow me to handle more director-type duties for my department in a timelier manner,” he said.

The council was receptive to the idea and the belief that free Wi-Fi would encourage visitors and business expansion downtown.

“I love the idea. I think the benefit, the payoff, is tremendous,” said Councilwoman Laura Mitchell. “How we get there, I think that’s the discussion.”

Councilwoman Terry Cohen asked how other communities felt after adding free Wi-Fi. Garrett had polled several areas from Florida to Connecticut, with all asked saying that the idea was worth it. At least one community reported 20 percent growth to its downtown in two years.

The consensus of the council was that free Wi-Fi is worth supporting and that it should be considered while the city bargains with Comcast during the current franchise agreement negotiations. The matter will now be included on an upcoming city legislative agenda for official discussion and possible approval.