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March 29, 2019

Free downtown wifi 'no longer a luxury' in places like Waterville, Millinocket

Photo / Maureen Milliken Waterville is one of the communities where free wifi is a key part of downtown redevelopment. At right is Colby College's Alfond Commons, which houses 200 students, faculty and staff.

Downtown Waterville’s free wifi, which launched in August, has served more than 124,000 users in seven months.

Already, the Waterville usage data shows “public wifi is increasingly becoming a necessity for patrons of downtown districts,” said Garvan Donegan, director of planning and economic development for the Central Maine Growth Council, which manages the wifi service. “The opportunity to stay connected to the internet encourages visitors to extend their stay in downtown, exploring the shops, restaurants, and recreational venues, boosting commerce and tourism.”

Waterville is one of many cities and towns in the state using wifi access as a development tool to revitalize a downtown. Others include Millinocket, which launched free downtown wifi in July 2017, and Augusta, which has free wifi throughout its downtown and across the river to City Center, provided by Redzone.

Redzone established the first free municipal wifi in the state, in Camden, in February 2016. At the time, users downtown could access it up to two hours at a time with metered use for longer periods. Within months, it had 400 to 500 users a day.

“We are confident that this innovative project represents an essential element in Maine’s new model for municipal broadband,” Jim McKenna, president of Redzone, said at the time.

Since then, municipalities across the state have installed wifi, using a number of different approaches.

Things like free wifi are no longer luxuries, said Mike Faloon, of Our Katahdin, a nonprofit community development group in Millinocket, East Millinocket and Medway.

“Residents and tourists — especially tourists — expect these amenities and it also gives them a reason to maybe stop in the respective downtowns when going to or coming back from the lakes and mountain,” Faloon said.

Millinocket’s hotspots have GWI service and were installed and are operated by Axiom.

The town now has five hot spots. The town office, DesignLab and the Scootic In restaurant all have equipment on their roofs and are the original three from 2017. Millinocket Memorial Library has two additional hot spots. A hotspot was also added in downtown East Millinocket.

The library hotspots are particularly innovative — it’s one of five libraries in the country to receive a $15,000 grant to pilot new technology that uses TV whitespace spectrum to expand broadband access beyond its walls, Library Director Matt DeLaney said.

“The library, through NetworkMaine, like most public schools and libraries has a very fast 1gb up/ 1gb down fiber connection. We harnessed that connection with support from the Maine State Library to create two wifi hotspots in public locations around town using radio antenna,” he said. “One hotspot location was chosen to expand what Our Katahdin had set up downtown.”

Axiom did that install as well.

“We regularly see over 1,000 unique connections per month on our network,” DeLaney said.

The Northern Forest Center and Elliotsville Plantation Inc. both donated to make Millinocket’s original installations possible, and the local Bangor Savings Bank branch contributes to the on-going service costs.

Waterville business, technology

 Like Millinocket, involvement from the business community made Waterville’s free wifi happen.

The service was established through an initial investment by Colby College and supported by Kennebec Savings Bank, MaineGeneral Health, Northern Light Inland Hospital and Thomas College’s Harold Alfond Institute for Business Innovation. The businesses work with Machias-based Axiom, a company focused on delivering broadband to rural communities, and internet provider FirstLight, headquartered in Albany, N.Y.

Wifi coverage is available outdoors and covers most of the downtown core, extending from the intersection of College Avenue and Main Street south to Hathaway Creative Center, which is across Spring Street from downtown. It also ranges from the Kennebec River, where it’s accessible in the new Riverwalk Park, west to the Concourse parking lot, which stretches behind the businesses on the west side of Main Street.

The free wifi came just before the opening of Colby College’s Alfond Commons at 150 Main St, which houses 200 students, faculty and staff.

Donegan said the wifi is also part of Waterville’s emergence as a technology hub, noting the wifi launch also coincided with several technology-related developments in the downtown district. CGI, a global information technology and consulting firm, moved into its new office space at 173 Main St., GenoTyping Center of America opened a biotechnology laboratory in Hathaway Creative Center and Bricks CoWorking and Innovation Space launched its coworking space in Hathaway Creative Center, becoming the home of Central Maine Tech Night.

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