Free Wi-Fi Access Discussed For Downtown Salisbury

SALISBURY — The availability of free Wi-Fi in downtown Salisbury took another step towards reality last week as the City Council discussed working with Maryland Broadband Cooperative for the service as well as looking to add a new position in their IT Department to manage the Wi-Fi and other needs.
Exactly how much area the Wi-Fi could come to encompass is flexible, though Councilwoman Terry Cohen asked that the council be careful when considering where to add coverage.
Initially, the city planned on working through Comcast, its normal Internet provider, to supply free Wi-Fi downtown. But the city is still in negotiations with Comcast for a service agreement and could be at the table with them for months. IT Director Brad Garrett told the council that in the interest of making Wi-Fi available as soon as possible, he spoke with other service providers and found one that would suit the city well in the interim.
“I did come up with an operative out of Cambridge,” he said. “Maryland Broadband Cooperative (MBC); they’re non-profit and they’re offering the services to us at-cost.”
Using MBC, the city can expect to save about $3,000 per year compared to early estimates. Garrett was also able to mitigate hardware and software costs for the operation drastically, which led several council members to praise his efficiency. An added bonus with using MBC, said Garrett, is that there is no contract and the city can move the Wi-Fi to Comcast depending on how the service agreement works out.
“We can cancel the contract with the Maryland Broadband Cooperative with no fees and no penalties,” he said.
Council President Jake Day said that he was impressed with how things are working out but wanted to make sure Wi-Fi quality wouldn’t have to be sacrificed.
“The only questions that I have are on speed, reliability and volume,” he told Garrett. “Do we know that it’s going to be reliable and fast?”
All quality through MBC would be comparable to what the city would have with Comcast, promised Garrett.
Councilmembers Tim Spies and Laura Mitchell both asked about how wide the Wi-Fi net could be cast. Mitchell nodded to areas like the zoo or park which she felt would be great for Wi-Fi.
“What better lunch then to be able to sit in the park and have a working lunch?” she asked.
The Wi-Fi could easily be expanded, replied Garrett, but should probably start small downtown. While it could grow, Cohen advised the council to be careful in how they expand the service.
“I don’t want to be dismissive of those who have health concerns about it, given that studies are coming in now that are talking about exposure to cell phone towers and Wi-Fi,” she said.
Cohen clarified that she didn’t necessarily believe that exposure to Wi-Fi could negatively impact one’s health, but she did feel it would be unfair for the council to ignore any residents who might feel that way, especially when talking about putting Wi-Fi in parks.
“There are people who have a natural expectation that going to a park is a natural experience, so before anything should proceed in that direction I would just like us to be respectful of that,” she said.
Any concerns will be heard and weighed, said Day, though he was under the impression that Wi-Fi had been deemed safe.
“My understanding was that those concerns had been addressed by the medical community as non-founded,” he said, “but I’m not a medical professional so I can’t and shouldn’t speak to that.”
Day requested that Garrett do some research on it before the council visits the issue again and that individual councilmembers conduct their own investigation into the subject.
With Wi-Fi on the track forward, Garrett revisited his earlier request to expand his department with the addition of a Network Administrator that would manage Wi-Fi and assist with other IT operations. The new position would carry a salary of $38,463 as well as another roughly $20,000 annually in benefit costs.
But about a third of the total cost could be made up for by reducing funding to a local vendor that currently handles many of the responsibilities that the administrator would. After those savings are factored in, Garrett told the council that the new position would have an annual price tag of $38,617. And though the vendor funding would be greatly diminished, Garrett explained that a few thousand dollars would be left in the account for any rainy day emergencies that required outside assistance.
The council agreed to consider a budget amendment to pay for the position at an upcoming legislative session. Day said that he was excited for the potential of free Wi-Fi in Salisbury since the start-up costs were only moderate and the service should be easy to expand without draining the city’s coffers.
“This is scalable … making an investment of a dollar that can grow significantly,” he remarked.