Free Public Wi-Fi

By Mark Saferstein

Have you noticed the degree to which most people are glued to electronic devices? Amazingly, 95 percent of Americans own a cell phone, the majority of the smart variety. Given this reality, a growing number of local, state, and federal agencies are now committed to bring free Wi-Fi to public spaces. For instance, the city of Los Angeles has introduced free Wi-Fi to iconic spots such as Venice Beach and the Griffith Observatory, as well as suburban recreation centers and urban parks in the center of downtown. Similarly, New York State Parks has expanded its connectivity program and now offers free Wi-Fi at parks that account for nearly 40 percent of the system’s 71-million visitors. Destination locations like Niagara Falls, Saratoga Spa, and Jones Beach are included, along with highly popular urban parks in the heart of New York City.

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Parks departments everywhere are starting to embrace the fact that visitors no longer view Wi-Fi as an amenity, but rather as a public utility, like electricity and running water. Since the demand for connectivity isn’t going away, lots of questions inevitably arise about how it works and who pays to fund the service, which visitors expect to be free.

Funding Through Public/Private Partnerships
When New York State Parks decided to take a leadership role by offering free Wi-Fi, it was a creative public/private partnership that made the service possible. State Parks Commissioner Rose Harvey says, “We’re grateful for our partnership with Toyota and American Park Network, whose generous support has allowed us to enhance our parks by adding this much sought-after service.”

In the city of Los Angeles, all equipment, installation, and ongoing maintenance were made possible through a similar partnership. Michael A. Shull, General Manager, Department of Recreation & Parks, was instrumental in making this program come to life. “It’s been very rewarding to collaborate with American Park Network with support from Toyota to bring free … Wi-Fi to park visitors,” says Shull. “We look forward to expanding Wi-Fi services throughout our entire park system.”

“In Arizona, connectivity is one of the most requested services,” says Sue Black, Director of Arizona State Parks. “The park community needs to take a leadership role and set the standard for the public.” Arizona has worked closely with concession partner Aramark to install free Wi-Fi in popular destinations like Kartchner Caverns and Patagonia Lake State Park, with plans to expand the service throughout the system.

Florida State Parks has made public Wi-Fi standard on all new concession agreements. The list goes on, with the consensus being that free Wi-Fi is a way to appeal to younger constituents, who often make their choices based on their ability to connect. Public/private partnerships—whether with sponsors, concessionaires, or private donors—are becoming a common approach to fund (or supplement) the cost of these systems. The key is to balance value to the visitor and savings to the parks department with an appropriate level of sponsor recognition.

How It Works
Don’t be intimidated by the technology; it’s largely the same as a home or office Wi-Fi system. The biggest difference is that commercial Wi-Fi equipment is made to handle the weather, plus a far higher volume of users. The following are some of the most frequently asked questions that relate to adding connectivity to parks:

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1. What’s required for Wi-Fi installation? Two basic things enable a Wi-Fi system:

· Constant electricity (110v)

· A high-speed internet connection.

2. My park already has as internet line. Can that circuit be shared or is a new one needed? You can absolutely use an existing circuit, as long as there’s sufficient bandwidth. By setting up a Virtual Local Area Network (VLAN), you’ll be able to provide two paths that are digitally isolated by a firewall. If needed, you can provide priority for internal/office use. A common example is having a shared line that serves VoIP phones, as well as a free public Wi-Fi system. The phones get first priority, even though everyone is using the same circuit.

3. What’s the range of Wi-Fi? Just like at home, carrier-grade, commercial Wi-Fi has a limited range, typically no more than several hundred feet. However, range can be extended significantly by adding multiple transmitters (commonly known as access points or APs), linked together to form a continuous “mesh” network.

4. Where should I place the system? The best locations are where there’s a high concentration of visitor traffic, and where people are likely to stay for a while, such as a day-use or concession area, beach, playground, or nature center. Transmitters can be mounted on existing infrastructure—light poles, buildings, parking structures, etc.—that have access to power and are, ideally, 15 feet off the ground.

5. Why is Wi-Fi needed if there’s cell coverage? Simple—Wi-Fi is free and cellular data plans are expensive. Demand for connectivity is high. On average, more than 20 percent of devices connect when in Wi-Fi hotspots for five minutes or more. At parks with limited cell coverage, the connection rate is often more than double the national average.

6. My local internet service provider doesn’t provide service to my park. Am I out of luck? No! There are multiple options to bring a broadband connection to a park, even if a wired solution isn’t possible. Wireless options include cellular, microwave, and satellite. Cellular-based Wi-Fi is too slow and expensive for a public system. Microwave systems start with a wired internet connection, and then beam it long distances using point-to-point antennas. This can work for remote locations, as long as there’s direct line of sight. The main drawback of microwave is that it’s expensive, and there’s a long lead time to put a solution in place. When time is of the essence, satellite technology allows you to bring a signal to even the most remote locations in as little as a week.

7. Are Wi-Fi systems private, secure, and family-friendly? Yes, commercial systems are typically anonymous; the data are encrypted, and you can block objectionable content.

8. Besides visitor demand, what are the benefits to having Wi-Fi? There are many operational benefits, including the ability to monitor visitation patterns to help with scheduling and budgeting. A digital information portal also allows you to share educational information, target messaging to park visitors (e.g., to encourage repeat visitations or to promote events) and save money on all printed information that can be provided digitally instead.

9. What do you think about charging visitors? There are very few examples where visitors are willing to pay for Wi-Fi access in a day-use facility. For overnight stays, it’s a different equation that’s like a hospitality model. In this case, charging the users is more common, especially in remote areas.

What’s The First Step?
The best first step is to start with a site survey to identify the desired coverage area. This can be done virtually, as long as you’re able to identify the places where constant power is accessible and where the APs can be mounted. A good installation partner will provide an estimated coverage map, help assess bandwidth needs (based on expected number of users), program the user interface (what visitors see on their screens when they connect to the system), track usage, provide visitor traffic data (helpful as a management/scheduling tool), and provide ongoing maintenance and support.

It’s always best to start small and learn as you grow. Pick the most popular parks and begin with a pilot program. If your experience is anything like those of your colleagues around the country, you’ll soon find free public Wi-Fi to be an invaluable tool, both to attract visitors and to keep them “connected” to your parks.

Mark Saferstein is the publisher and editor-in-chief at American Park Network. Reach him at mark@americanparknetwork.com.