Is free public Wi-Fi on Hyattsville’s horizon?

By SHOURJYA MOOKERJEE — In order to increase online access for its residents and businesses, the City of Hyattsville is partnering with the University of Maryland to evaluate the feasibility of providing free Wi-Fi in public spaces. 

In March, the city council proposed a fourth-quarter city-wide evaluation looking at options for free public Wi-Fi. The impetus for the evaluation came from a legislative item put forward by Ward 5 Councilwoman Erica Spell Wolf in 2017. Since its introduction, however, the motion has faced a number of hurdles.

“It was fairly broad but also very forward-thinking,” said Jim Chandler, director of Community and Economic Development for Hyattsville. “The goal was to allow opportunities for connectivity for both our residents and also those visiting here.”

The legislative item was one of the first motions Spell Wolf introduced after her 2017 election to the council. She emphasized the importance of free Wi-Fi to the growth of both businesses and private communities. 

“There are entire industries being built online, and communities are being left behind because of this lack of access to information,” she said. “The main goal of this project is to bring free Wi-Fi to our public spaces.”

“These days, there is this push for municipalities to become smart cities, where we can find a more productive and efficient way to supervise city services,” she said. “I wanted to bridge that digital divide for us.”

While the city planned to implement Spell Wolf’s proposal immediately, Chandler says the city ran into some unexpected challenges in 2017. For example, just a couple months after the announcement for the legislative item was made, 5G technology became widely available.

5G, which is short for “5Ghz Wi-Fi,” is an advanced wireless technology that allows users to upload and download files at higher speeds. Faster isn’t always better, however. When connecting over large distances, the slower, but more stable 2.4 GHz wireless bandwidth, which is the default connection for most current routers, does a better job. 

Chandler said the introduction of 5G has forced the city to rethink its plan for connectivity. 

“It has not so much been a matter of barriers, so to speak, it’s really been more of trying to figure out what is the appropriate fit for us as a public entity and municipal government,” Chandler said. “We had a lot of factors at play, but we didn’t know what 5G would do to big cities and small cities.”

Since Spell Wolf’s proposal, a few other ideas have made their way into the development process. Chandler said Hyattsville has examined pilot programs in other municipalities that have introduced free public Wi-Fi. 

“Other smart city programs have helped with figuring out scalability, the initial investment and even potential return,” Chandler said. “We looked at Seat Pleasant as a model, for example. This process takes years, obviously, but they have invested heavily into figuring out how to build this technology into their existing infrastructure.”

Chandler says the challenge lies in figuring out the most obvious avenue to introduce free Wi-Fi without a major capital investment. One idea is to convert the city’s existing Bigbelly trash compactors into Wi-Fi hotspots. The trash cans are already equipped with smart technology and could be modified to include a public Wi-Fi connection.

“It’s effectively a compactor on the street that serves as a trash receptacle, but it’s built with smart technology. There’s the ability to insert a modem in the machines to enable Wi-Fi connectivity.”

Chandler said that while this idea has been proposed, there is no written plan for implementation at this time.

“Over the summer, we worked with a graduate student in the field of public policy and looked at the broader scope of smart city technology,” he continued. “It might be a combination of infrastructure and then piggybacking on efforts already in place.”

Citing the city’s fiduciary responsibility to its taxpayers, Chandler emphasized caution before making major investments.

“It comes down to what level of benefit the public would receive and how we can minimize the overall cost of the project,” he said. “In looking at some of the larger cities to have implemented this technology, it appears to be a long lead up before any investment is made.”

According to Chandler, the city is examining technology options that would rely on in-house staff and existing budget resources. Ideally, any new Wi-Fi technology would be integrated into the city’s existing infrastructure and be used for some of the city operations. In January, city staff will publish a memorandum intended to serve as a starting point for what the city could pursue over the next few years, he said.

Spell Wolf also expressed caution at moving the project forward without proper due diligence.

“We have to look at the model that works best for Hyattsville,” she said. “We want to make sure that we are using taxpayer dollars wisely, and we don’t want this to be an outrageously expensive way to provide this service.”

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