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Is Wi-Fi worth it?

A plan to provide free wireless Internet service to visitors in part of downtown will cost the Town of Jonesborough approximately $8,500 over three years. But it’s not necessarily the cost that has one alderman wondering if it’s worth it.
“Years ago, this might have been a good idea, but things have changed so much in the last couple of years,” said Alderman Chuck Vest during a discussion on the topic at the April 8 meeting of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen. “With smartphones, you don’t have a need for Wi-Fi. I think that’s one of the reasons we don’t necessarily need it downtown.”
Town Administrator Bob Browning has been working for months to determine if free Wi-Fi service could be offered to visitors outside on Main Street from First Avenue to Spring Street.
A study done several years ago by a community marketing firm suggested offering Wi-Fi as an added perk for tourists coming to Tennessee’s oldest town.
The Wi-Fi, some argue, would allow people to sit at tables outdoors and access the Internet to conduct business, study for tests or get visitor information about the town.
It’s an image Vest just isn’t buying.
“I don’t think you’re going to see that on Courthouse Square in Jonesborough,” he said. “It’s something I don’t think the town needs to offer. I just don’t see a lot of potential use for it.”
One potential use that did concern Vest, was the access the service would give people to pornographic websites or other inappropriate material.“From the research I’ve done, it is costly and cumbersome to prohibit porn sites,” he said. “So there’s going to be no control over the content that people could be using on Courthouse Square. I don’t think it’s worth the risk.”
Melinda Copp, the town director for the Main Street Program, compared free Wi-Fi to electrical service.
“It’s just something that’s expected in a tourist hotspot,” she said, adding that downtown merchants are excited about the possibility. “They feel like it’s an additional perk to get people to come downtown.”
Browning pointed out the town’s recent expansion of sidewalks along Main Street, saying the intention was to get more people to hang out downtown.
“It’s creating opportunity for the restaurants,” he said. “It’s a way to entice people. If somebody puts out tables, you have (Wi-Fi) service for people.”
Vest said he doesn’t believe it’s the town’s responsibility to fund such a perk.
Members of the BMA nipped in the bud a suggestion from Alderman Adam Dickson to see if downtown merchants would be willing to partner with the town on the project.
“Last year, we used up a considerable amount of our goodwill with our downtown project, having Main Street shut down for the better part of a year,” Mayor Kelly Wolfe pointed out. “I think Wi-Fi has become somewhat of an expected tourism infrastructure. I think we ought to give this a fair shake.”
Vice Mayor Terry Countermine, the chairman of East Tennessee’s Department of Computing in the College of Business and Technology, said he believes it is worth testing out to see the response from visitors.
“We invested a lot of money in our downtown to make it look nice and bring in visitors,” Countermine said. “I look at this as a little frosting on the cake for a visitor.”
Noting the town will be able to get firm data regarding how much the service is utilized, Countermine made a motion to try the Wi-Fi service on a trial basis for a year. He amended his motion when he realized the service contract with CenturyLink and price estimate were for three years.
The recommendation passed 3-1, with Vest casting the only dissenting vote.
Under the agreement, the town will pay a one-time cost of $4,500 for equipment to provide the service, a one-time fee of $330 for a maintenance contract and roughly $100 a month for 36 months of service.
An antenna will be placed on the International Storytelling Center, which will allow the Wi-Fi to stretch from the Eureka Inn to the east side of the downtown courthouse. The Wi-Fi service will not work inside buildings.