Watertown exploring free downtown wi-fi

This downtown green space at Madison Avenue and Lewis Avenue is currently a wi-fi hotspot, a service being provided by Frontier at no charge to the city. The city is looking into expanding wi-fi access throughout the downtown area. (Staff photo by Matt Bunke)

This downtown green space at Madison Avenue and Lewis Avenue is currently a wi-fi hotspot, a service being provided by Frontier at no charge to the city. The city is looking into expanding wi-fi access throughout the downtown area. (Staff photo by Matt Bunke)

The city of Watertown is investigating the possibility of turning it’s downtown central business district into a wi-fi hotspot.

City staff has engaged in recent discussions with Charter, Frontier, and Carver County Information Technology to assess the costs of expanding wireless internet access throughout the downtown area. The city council even took the step last week during its July 23 meeting of authorizing city staff to seek  grant funding that could be used for a study of downtown wi-fi, for the potential installation of antennas, or for other broadband related expenses the city might incur if it does indeed pursue new wireless internet options.

“The council has been talking about a very limited-scope, downtown wi-fi hotspot, and not the creation of a wireless utility or enterprise that would blanket the community,” Watertown city administrator Luke Fischer said. “Instead, the wi-fi hotspot would be targeted to our downtown area as an economic development tool and as a parks and recreation tool to get people to stay in our downtown area.”

The grant application is to the Blandin Community Broadband Program, which aims to match funds to help rural communities provide abundant access to the internet and promote digital literacy skills. Since making rural broadband use a focus 10 years ago, the Blandin Foundation has partnered with more than 60 communities and 80 organizations from around the state.

While the idea has received strong support thus far from the city council in general, councilor Steve Washburn in particular has been championing the proposal. He said he believes the measure could draw more people to Watertown’s downtown business district, and young people in particular.

“We have a lot of students in our school system that have iPads, or will have them very soon as they go back to school, but not all of those students have access to internet at home” Washburn said. “I believe very strongly that we need to provide some of that in a confined area. The more we do to bring kids downtown, the more parents are going to come downtown, and the more they’re going to stop and shop at our businesses.”

The city council also authorized city staff to begin to put together a task force of potential stakeholders in a downtown wi-fi initiative. The task force would potentially include representatives from organizations and groups like the Watertown-Mayer School District, Watertown Area Chamber of Commerce, Watertown Economic Development Authority, Watertown Parks and Recreation Commission, and Carver County. Fischer said the goal in creating such a task force would be to not only make sure the needs of each group were being met by any possible wi-fi initiative, but also to show broad community support and collaboration in its application to the Blandin Foundation.

The proposal to expand wireless internet access throughout Watertown’s downtown business district is tied to the recent creation of a free wi-fi hotspot at the corner of Madison Avenue and Lewis Avenue. The city recently entered into a license agreement with Dr. Scott Jensen of Catalyst Clinic to use that property for downtown green space.

Jensen, who heard of the city’s and county’s interest in expanding access to digital technology in conjunction with the recent Watertown library expansion, was able to get a commitment from Frontier Communications to provide wi-fi at the small park at no cost to either the city or the county. That hot-spot is already active, and the new proposal would widen the area to a larger area of downtown Watertown.

The Watertown Lions Club has also committed funding for park improvements at Madison Avenue and Lewis Avenue. The city also has begun discussions with a local boy scout for a potential Eagle Scout project at the site, and other community volunteer organizations have also expressed interest in participating.

Watertown Mayor Charlotte Johnson has in the past expressed her desire to have some sort of a bandstand built at that park, but any improvement plans would ultimately need to first be reviewed by the Park and Recreation Commission and City Council. Fischer said the city is hopeful that any work at the park can be completed by the end of the summer.

Contact Matt Bunke at matt.bunke@ecm-inc.com

 
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