Council Pulls Plug on Wi-Fi

BLYTHEWOOD (May 31, 2016) – After Michael Switzer, Executive Director of the Blythewood Chamber of Commerce, challenged Town Council to repair the town’s Wi-Fi system during Council’s annual retreat in February, Council rejected the plea on Monday night, voting 4-1 to eliminate the Town’s current failed Wi-Fi system and to ask AT&T about providing more hot spots around town for the convenience of visitors to the community.

At the retreat, Switzer told Council that he had surveyed about 20 of the town’s businesses and that the majority of them wanted the Town’s 8-year-old Wi-Fi system returned to working condition.

But on Monday evening, Kevin Williamson, the Town’s IT consultant, told Council that the system was flawed in its installation, its design, had never worked properly, could probably not be really fixed and is costing the Town about $200 per month.

“The system is down right now. It’s intermittent at best. It has a router that’s bad on top of the Comfort Inn, and the system was never designed to provide Wi-Fi for the businesses or anything inside of a building,” Williamson said. “Even though the router was on top of the Comfort Inn, when it was first installed and was fully functional, you still couldn’t pick it up inside the Comfort Inn which is 30 feet from the antenna.”

The system, which was installed in 2009 during Mayor Keith Bailey’s administration, was intended to broadcast from the Comfort Inn to an antenna behind the Town Hall and across the Interstate to the Community Bank Building in the Food Lion shopping center.

“When the system was installed,” Williamson recalled, “the contractor complained that the trees were too high around the router. My argument was – the trees were there before the system was quoted.”

Williamson told Council that the package being supplied to the antenna is not an industrial speed package.

“They are charging a very high rate, and the pieces on top of these buildings are industrial/commercial style routers intended to broadcast over long ranges – 5 miles or so. But system was never completed. It was not installed in such a way that it can work the way it was proposed,” Williamson said.

He said there are only three or four users and they are local addresses and it would cost about $5,000 – $6,000 to repair.

“And now the trees are taller,” Williams said, “so it wouldn’t work anyway.”

Switzer insisted that about 20 businesses in town want to be able to use the Wi-Fi system and asked Council to defer a vote until he could get quotes from internet service providers to repair and redo the system.

“We have three chamber members who provide this service – Time Warner, AT&T and TruVista,” Switzer said. “I’d like to see what they have to say about the repairs, the cost, the strength and I’d like to survey some other towns and Chambers of Commerce to get their advice.”

“Just so you don’t waste your time, none of the service providers you mentioned do this. This is a hardware issue. They won’t even talk to you. They’ll provide you with internet service for your hardware,” Williamson told Switzer. “AT&T has put hot spots in different locations around town so travelers can get service.”

Councilman Eddie Baughman pointed out that most of the Town’s restaurants – McDonald’s, Hardee’s, Carolina Wings and others – provide Wi-Fi.

“You say all these businesses want Wi-Fi service but I’ve never gotten a call from a business disappointed that the Town’s Wi-Fi doesn’t work,” Mayor J. Michael Ross told Switzer.

“When this Wi-Fi was installed, it was stated quite clearly that the businesses wouldn’t be able to use it. It was to be used by travelers from parking lots. So what are the businesses wanting and missing if the Wi-Fi doesn’t go into the buildings, anyway,” Councilman Tom Utroska asked.

Councilman Malcolm Gordge shared some of his research on the subject.

“The overwhelming impression I get from the experiences of other municipalities that provide Wi-Fi service is that we don’t want to go there,” Gordge said. “The cost of setting up the system, supporting the system, uploading the system, etc., far outweighs any advantage of it. The state of North Carolina forbids its municipalities from subsidized internet services.

“We might rue the day if we did this,” Gordge told Council. “Even if we got our system up and running, the internet service providers are not just going to give up that revenue and let the Town of Blythewood provide free service (to their potential customers). It doesn’t make economic sense.”

With that, Utroska made the motion to discontinue the Town’s Wi-Fi system and try to get more hot spots installed around town. Utroska, Baughman, Ross and Gordge voted for the motion, and Councilman Larry Griffin voted against.

In other business, Council voted unanimously to install two way-finding signs in the town directing visitors to the schools, business districts, park, historical society and Town Hall. The signs are to be installed at Blythewood and Boney Roads and Main Street and Blythewood Road.

The next Council workshop will be held on Thursday, April 14.