Beginning this fall, anyone on the West Side will be able to access Wi-Fi for free.
The new service is a collaboration between West Side Main Street and CityNet, made possible by three grants totaling $25,000 from West Virginia’s Community Participation Grant Program. Service will stretch down Washington Street West from Pennsylvania Avenue to Patrick Street. Wi-Fi will also be available a block north and south of Washington Street.
Free Wi-Fi has long been seen as a tool for neighborhood development and community building in Charleston. East End Main Street has offered free Wi-Fi in parts of the neighborhood since 2008, and workers with West Side Main Street have had Wi-Fi on their to-do list for years.
Business owners do consider free Wi-Fi a valuable service, according to a 2014 survey by Time Warner Cable.
The survey found that 80 percent of business owners said their customers expect free Wi-Fi, and that they believe it attracts new customers. But only 43 percent of those polled offered a free service.
“The goal of the Wi-Fi project is really to bring in another resource for business owners and give them another opportunity to draw more clientele into their establishments,” said Stephanie Johnson, the executive director of West Side Main Street.
There are a few catches, however. Johnson said West Side Main Street doesn’t want to undermine businesses that already have Wi-Fi.
She said that the free service will time-out after a certain period of time, and that users will have to re-register. As more people use the service, too, connection speeds could be slower, Johnson said.
Johnson said that’s not to say that there won’t be benefits to the community.
The West Side is home to more than a few family-owned businesses, with plenty of restaurants. The Charleston Montessori School is set to relocate to an annex of the Bream Memorial Presbyterian Church this school year. Developers are also renovating the former Staats Hospital building on Washington Street.
But the neighborhood still lacks a coffee shop, something Johnson would like to see changed.
“This is a really family-friendly community, and there are a lot of different organizations that are working very closely to continue to develop the West Side,” she said.
West Side Main Street has taken a lot of its cues from East End Main Street, a similar organization on the other side of town.
Ric Cavender, the executive director, said that the East End got its own free Wi-Fi network in 2008. He said the program has had a positive response since, with tens of thousands of unique users.
The East End’s network uses ticker messages that scroll across peoples’ screens to remind them of upcoming events.
“It creates a kind of cohesiveness around the district,” he said. “It’s been nice to have this service.”
But the system has not come without challenges. Cavender said that service is spotty, and, right now, users can’t access the network in some places around the neighborhood.
Cavender said East End Main Street is currently taking three or four months to review and fix connection problems that have come up.
Ben Randolph, the vice president of sales for Citynet, said that the project is a new venture for both West Side Main Street and Citynet.
He said the company specializes in Cisco technology, but that connecting entire cities, or smaller neighborhoods, is something the company is looking forward to.
“It’s a pretty exciting project for them, and certainly for us as well,” Randolph said. “This is a new venture for us, but nonetheless, it’s one we’re comfortable with.”
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