Wi-Fi? Why Not?

Survey Gauges Interest In Wireless Access For Downtown

Posted: March 26, 2014

Mark Dowdy works on his laptop at Shank’s Bakery, making use of the downtown business’ free Wi-Fi service Tuesday. A survey coordinated by graduate students at James Madison University is trying to determine how much interest there is in providing high-speed wireless Internet access throughout downtown Harrisonburg. (Photos by Michael Reilly / DN-R)
Natasha D' Souza, 22, who takes classes at Blue Ridge Community College and James Madison University, connects to the Wi-Fi at Earth & Tea Cafe in downtown Tuesday.

HARRISONBURG — A study is being conducted to determine how much demand there is for Wi-Fi access in downtown Harrisonburg and whether it would be a service worth investing in.

Graduate students in James Madison University’s public administration program are conducting the study on behalf of Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance.

Their analysis will include gauging how much interest there is in high-speed wireless Internet access; researching the matter in other communities; estimating what the project would cost; and recommendations, according to Eddie Bumbaugh, executive director of HDR.

Part of the study includes a recently concluded survey asking downtown residents, visitors, business owners and others for input on “a unified wireless network for all of downtown Harrisonburg.”

The results of the survey aren’t yet available.

The students must complete the entire project by early May, Bumbaugh said, at which time their study will be in the nonprofit downtown revitalization group’s hands.

“If, for example, the report says needs are sufficiently met now and there’s no interest in high-speed Wi-Fi, then I would not expect there to be a next step,” he said. “If they find there is a need, but the expense is significant, that also could mean it does not take another step. The third scenario is it is needed and desired and the cost is modest.”

Many downtown businesses already offer Wi-Fi to customers, and the Downtown Dining Alliance also provides the service.

But Bumbaugh said the alliance’s service has gaps.

Existing and potential new businesses have inquired about the availability of Wi-Fi for several years, Bumbaugh said, and the students’ project presented the opportunity to see what it would take to bring it to the masses.

Amherst, Mass., and Wilmington, N.C., are examples of cities that have provided public Wi-Fi services in their respective downtowns.

Randy Shank, co-owner of Shank’s Bakery on West Water Street, said public Wi-Fi access in downtown Harrisonburg “would be beneficial in a lot of different areas.”

“It seems to be something that’s up-and-coming in some of the larger metropolitan areas, and I think Harrisonburg might as well get started at this point rather than wait until being the last one in,” he said.

His bakery is one of the businesses that offer Wi-Fi, but Shank said a unified service would be preferable to consumers.

“We have a good number of hot spots or Wi-Fi spots in the downtown area, but this would make it a lot easier for anyone to know that they would be available in the whole area, instead of having to ask for a security code or that kind of thing,” he said.

Harrisonburg Councilman Charles Chenault, who is a member of the HDR board of directors, said he would support an effort to bring Wi-Fi access downtown.

Chenault said it would benefit Harrisonburg well beyond the city center.

“I see downtown as very important to the future of our city from an economic standpoint,” he said. “Just about anybody can replicate a lot of the things we have and compete with us, especially from a tourism standpoint, but the one thing they can’t replicate is our downtown.”

As for how the service would be funded, Chenault said options to explore include public-private partnerships and grants.

“I don’t like to leave any option closed,” he said, “until I know it has to be.”

Contact Jeremy Hunt at 574-6273 or jhunt@dnronline.com

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