2016-12-08 / Front Page

DDC hears ins, outs of Wi-Fi plan

By Anthony Aloisio
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD – The Downtown Development Commission has met with Maine-based wireless internet providers Axiom Technologies, LLC, based in Machias, and RedZone Wireless, based in Rockland, to hear presentations about the possibility of installing a public wireless internet service in the downtown. RedZone presented at the commission’s Monday, Dec. 5 meeting, and Axiom presented at an earlier meeting.

“We’re just fact-finding, you could say. It’s exploring the idea of public Wi-Fi hotspots,” said Chairman Bill Durkin. “We’re not at any stance right now to make any kind of presentation to the council. Essentially, there was some interest in it, the idea of having available to visitors, for tourists, for possibly local citizens.”

Also attending the presentations was Rep. Martin Grohman (D-Biddeford), who represents downtown Biddeford in the House of Representatives.

“I had heard a while back from a few downtown merchants about the idea of having a wireless network downtown,” Grohman said, “and it’s something I have some connections in because I work on the Energy, Utilities and Technology committee in the Legislature.”

Grohman said at the meeting that he was approached with the idea initially by Biddeford resident and former Downtown Development Commission Chair Brian Keely.

According to Grohman, the idea being explored would involve Biddeford-based internet service provider GWI providing the “backhaul” of the connection – meaning the ultimate uplink to the Internet – while a second company provides the wireless connectivity infrastructure to which users would directly connect.

“What we have promised to do is provide backhaul . . . via fiber optic cable for free for three years,” GWI CEO Fletcher Kittredge wrote in an email. “There will still be the cost of buying the equipment, installing the equipment, and running the equipment. We recommended two companies that specialize in providing such a service. Providing backhaul is a major piece of the puzzle, but far from the whole thing.”

Grohman said the concept presented by Axiom would cover from 40 Main St. down to McArthur Public Library at 270 Main St. RedZone’s presentation did not include any location or coverage specifics.

“The further out you go, the more that it could cost,” Grohman said.

Grohman did not offer any information on how much money would be needed to pay for the infrastructure.

“But there’s actually fairly good potential that this could be done at no cost,” Grohman continued. “I think that’s the goal of the DDC. That’s been the model of other towns.”

According to Grohman, other towns in Maine have achieved a downtown wireless service by recruiting local businesses to sponsor it. When wireless users connect they would be presented with a page advertising the sponsors. The same page could be used by the city to publish announcements, Grohman said.

“These downtown networks are not intended to replace internet service for residents,” Grohman said. “This is more like when you go to the airport, you connect to the Wi-Fi for half an hour. It’s meant to be boosting your visitor experience.”

Michael L. Forcillo, vice president of sales and marketing for RedZone, said at Monday’s meeting that restriction for another downtown wireless services they had done was by a two-hour connection limit per user.

Commission liaison and former city manager John Bubier, who currently serves as advisor to the economic development director, raised the idea that the chimney of the mill could be used as a tower for the wireless infrastructure. Forcillo acknowledged the idea but deferred making any judgments until RedZone could explore possibilities. Grohman said Axiom’s presentation presented three or four wireless transmitters installed in downtown.

About the process going forward, Durkin reiterated that the commission is only at the exploratory stage. City Manager Jim Bennett told the Courier that the commission has not discussed the idea at all with city staff or council, so any discussion of the city’s involvement in the development would be premature.

“I think the group is leaning toward just getting started with something successful and then trying to build on it,” Grohman said. “There’s all kinds of ways you can go with these things that are pretty cool, including some access for students who otherwise don’t have access to Wi-Fi. It’s very configurable.”

Contact Staff Writer Anthony Aloisio at news@inthecourier.com.

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