Gainesville is looking to establish a free wireless broadband hotspot in the downtown square to improve e-commerce, recruit new businesses, provide educational opportunities in an outdoor setting and promote cultural events in the historic heart of the city.
“For every generation, staying connected has become a big factor in decisions about where we spend our time,” said Tim Evans, vice president of economic development at the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce. “For that reason, many cities (large and small) across the country have established hotspots in their downtown areas.”
This includes Chattanooga, Tenn., where a municipal-owned broadband network has been credited with bringing in new businesses and young professionals.
“Downtown Gainesville is a unique gathering spot in this community, and Wi-Fi and digital access do help attract people to spend time in the public spaces and businesses,” Evans said.
The city is applying for a $30,000 grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission to assess current infrastructure and internet access, determine where new connections are needed and install new antennas to establish a secure wireless hotspot downtown.
Gainesville will match that amount if awarded the grant.
City officials said they need to provide and expand broadband internet infrastructure to remain economically competitive.
“I think it’s going to be good for the merchants,” Mayor Danny Dunagan said.
Wireless offered by businesses downtown is limited and typically requires passwords for patrons only.
Nick Hoecker, owner of Downtown Drafts in the Gainesville square, a cafe whose specialty is growlers, or beer to-go, said he has experienced this himself.
For example, there have been times during downtown concerts and other events when his wireless network crashed from too many users, and that also impacted his credit payment system.
A free, secure network paid for or operated by the city could alleviate such future headaches, he said.
“It’s a great idea,” he added. “Anything to bring more people downtown is what we’re all about.”
The push to expand wireless connectivity coincides with other proposals in a new strategic plan aimed at guiding and managing growth downtown through 2045.
Major proposals in the plan include new housing, fairs and festivals, improved streets and walkways, and better pedestrian connectivity between the square, midtown and business corridors such as Oak Street, and Brenau University.
And Gainesville officials are currently looking to acquire a property on the “outskirts” of the square to develop into a new parking deck.
According to City Manager Bryan Lackey, the city will consider whether to build and operate its own public broadband network, or contract with a third-party that “demonstrates that they can provide the level of service and security we are seeking.”
Evans said that private broadband providers, such as Charter, also need to continue making investments to expand access “even if the city is able to create a wireless hotspot that can help fill some of the gaps.”