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State's Fastest Public Wi-Fi Now Live in Amherst, Mass.

A new outdoor Wi-Fi network in Amherst, Mass. features wireless access points that allow high speed connectivity in local business and residences too.

To Kristopher Pacunas, the Internet is like a public utility.

“If your Internet is down,” he said, “it’s like losing electricity.”

Pacunas is the IT director in Amherst, Mass. On Jan. 2, Pacunus and his staff of seven announced public access to high-speed outdoor Wi-Fi in the city’s downtown core. The new network provides business owners, shoppers and residents with free Internet access.

Although public Wi-Fi is popping up in many public spaces across the country, some jurisdictions still struggle with implementing reliable connectivity that can accommodate many users at once.

On the day of the announcement, almost 3,000 people connected to the network, and Pacunas predicts that eventually, about 1,000 people will be using the network at any given time. Laptop and desktop users can connect at 80 Mbps, while mobile devices and tablets can access 40 Mbps connectivity.

The public Wi-Fi for Amherst follows a six year period of testing, troubleshooting, and trial and error. In 2007, the town spent about $200,000 on a sizeable Wi-Fi network. But like many municipalities that set out to deliver public Wi-Fi, users were frustrated by service gaps.

“There are so many factors in building a quality Wi-Fi that you just wouldn’t think of,” Pacunas said. “Air quality, reflection and other factors can affect the network. You have to make a lot of mistakes first. It’s not simple and it takes experience.”

In 2012, when the town decided to remove the old network, it tested outdoor connection speeds with every major telecommunications company. But the technology did not compare to the average speed that users could get indoors.

“You couldn’t get a client to get over 5 or 6 Mbps,” Pacunas said. “I wasn’t willing to settle. If we’re going to have to go with something people are going to be frustrated using, we should go with nothing.”

So the IT Department decided to build custom wireless access points. It purchased radios, different types of antennas and mounts. The whole project cost $50,000, and is 20 times faster than the  legacy Wi-Fi system. Additionally, maintenance costs are minimal. The IT Department is responsible for monitoring the access points, and is prepared to replace and add points when necessary.

Another benefit of custom-built access points is superior connectivity to handheld devices. Pacunas predicts that 50 percent of downtown’s visitors are using smartphones and tablets, and the lightweight antennas make it challenging to connect at long distances. To ensure that mobile and tablet users would have a positive Wi-Fi experience, the IT Department decided on a signaling processing system that reflects the signal and spatial streams to hone in on handheld devices.

Although it is an outdoor network, visitors using mobile devices and tablets can also connect to the Wi-Fi while inside downtown businesses. And local merchants can choose to rely solely on public Wi-Fi for business operations.

“The town’s new Wi-Fi network allows us to complete transactions wirelessly,” said Keren Rhodes, owner of Glazed Donut Shop, in the press release announcing the network. “And it encourages our customers to stay longer.”

One of the IT Department’s goals is to make investments that will attract more people to the downtown area. The Wi-Fi network fits perfectly into that strategy, and is far less costly than an attraction like a casino or a public park. Visitors can access the Wi-Fi inside restaurants, bookstores, hobby shops, bakeries and coffee shops, to name a few.

According to Pacunas, one way Amherst will measure return on investment for the public Wi-Fi will be by keeping tabs on the number of downtown businesses that open in the next two to three years.

“Experts in economic development say that one of the most important keys to economic development to a city or a town is to attract professional businesses,” he said. “Professionals move their businesses to places where they can get good employees. And on the flip side, economic development experts tell you that good employees live in places where you can get free Wi-Fi.”

According to town officials, the state of Massachusetts recognizes Amherst as having the best municipal wireless network in the state.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia/John Phelan