My Kind of Town
By Jeff Goldman, Thu Apr 17 09:30:00 GMT 2003

Cities are finding that wireless hotspots can be a great way to draw visitors, attract business, and even transform the ways in which urban spaces can be used.


Stop by the Rogue Valley Roasting Company in Ashland, Oregon any evening, and you're likely to find people sitting on the porch outside the popular espresso joint, typing away at their laptops.

The thing is, the place closes at 6:00 P.M.-and the people are still there.

Thanks to a citywide initiative called Ashland Unwired, wireless Internet access is now available at a growing number of locations throughout this small tourist town. Ashland's Oregon Shakespeare Festival attracts over 100,000 visitors every year, many from San Francisco, so wireless is a perfect offering for the community and its visitors.

The fact that they use it even after shops and restaurants are closed is a testament to quite how popular wireless access can be.

And Ashland Unwired isn't the only organization taking note. Many other cities and businesses are using wireless technology to attract visitors to their areas and customers to their shops.

Broad Benefits

Ashland Unwired was created by two local companies, Open Door Networks and Project A. Alan Oppenheimer, Open Door's President, says the wireless offering is a perfect way to provide a popular service and advertise at the same time. "By sponsoring this, we get our name out there, and we can tell our customers, 'Look at this cool technology: we do good things,'" he said.

A free service like Ashland Unwired is a great offering for a tourist town, and coffee shops like the Rogue Valley Roasting Company aren't the only businesses that benefit: even the town's bed and breakfasts are able to attract guests by promoting free Internet access. "A number of the B&Bs in town have specifically said they've had guests who wouldn't have come there if they hadn't had it," Oppenheimer said.

Jim Teece, President of Project A, says this kind of technology can also help the city convince high-tech businesses to relocate to the area. "It has the active effect of saying, 'We encourage high technology," he said. "It says we're a city that's about clean industry. So we get businesses that want to relocate here because this city's really behind technology."

And it can revitalize parts of the city by bringing older buildings into the 21st century. In a small town like Ashland, Teece points out, there aren't many high-tech options for meetings and conferences-but wireless makes things more flexible. "Using wireless, we can go into a movie theatre or a ballroom, use a great facility and a fun environment, and still have connectivity," he said.

Community Service

Ashland Unwired is funded by Project A and Open Door Networks: at about $200 per access point, it's a simple investment to make. A similar project is being run in Boston by Michael Oh, President of the tech consulting firm Tech Superpowers. Oh has set up a series of wireless repeaters on Boston's Newbury Street, turning an entire area into a wireless zone.

Like the companies behind Ashland Unwired, Oh says advertising was a key motivation for his project, called NewburyOpen.net. "We're a small company and we don't have a lot of marketing funds," he said. "The network is provided as a free service, and every NewburyOpen.net location has Tech Superpowers' logo and has information about our company."

Still, Tech Superpowers isn't the only company that benefits: Oh says the merchants on Newbury Street have seen clear results. "They've actually seen more traffic in the off-hours: people wandering in with laptops, sitting down for two or three hours, eating lunch, having a bunch of coffee, and doing some work," Oh said. "It's definitely made a difference."

Oh has been so happy with the success of the project that he's trying to spread the gospel to other companies worldwide. "Any company can do this with $3,000 to $5,000," he said. "We've put the tech specs on our web site, showing how to configure the bridges to set them up as repeaters, because I think the idea has a lot of merit for other companies."

Changing Spaces

Projects like these aren't started only by businesses: cities and civic organizations are exploring them as well. In New York City, the Downtown Alliance is working with Emenity, a for-profit spin-off of NYCwireless, to build a series of hotspots around lower Manhattan with the aim of attracting more visitors to the area.

Anthony Townsend, Emenity's Chief Operating Officer, says wireless technology can also increase the options in terms of how an urban space can be used. "The park or the café becomes a viable place to set up office for three hours, or to have a meeting," he said. "It's a blurring of boundaries between offices and public spaces, because you no longer have to go to the office to get connected."

In order to make that public access even more meaningful, each downtown hotspot will have its own portal page with local information. "There will be real location-based services on this network," Townsend said. "We'll provide information about restaurants, about bars, about shopping, historical information about the neighborhood: each hotspot will have customized content about the surrounding area."

In the long run, Townsend says, deployments like these can certainly draw more traffic to an area, but they can also go further, transforming public spaces by linking them directly to cyberspace. "We're setting the stage for experimentation on the level of what the web did for publishing of documents, and what email did for communication," he said. "And I think that's tremendously exciting."

Jeff Goldman is a freelance writer covering a wide range of topics for a number of online journals. He currently writes regular articles for Internet.com's ISP-Planet. Brought up in Belgium, Jeff spent the last decade in New York, Chicago and London; he now lives in Los Angeles.