Virginia Town Provides Free Wi-fi in City Park, Fiber to Community Anchors

Last summer, the city of Staunton, Virginia, sent out a press release about its new citywide free wi-fi service. Four hours later, a destructive storm ripped through Gypsy Hill Park knocking down trees and damaging buildings. Nevertheless, the equipment held on. Five days later, celebrants at the city's July 4th party used the free service in droves.

A William Jackson GCN article from December, 2012, highlights the popularity of the network:

Wi-Fi use in the park had begun well before the formal launch. Almost as soon as installation of the access points began in May, park workers noticed people congregating with their laptops in areas near the points, Plowman said, demonstrating the demand for Wi-Fi access.

Public Wi-Fi has become a popular feature at the park. “People are finding creative uses for it,” [chief technology officer for Staunton, Kurt] Plowman said, such as the woman who used a laptop Web camera to send a ball game in the park to a player’s grandmother.

As we have seen in other communities, a wireless network enhances local connectivity as a complement to a fiber network. Staunton is the County seat of Augusta and home to nearly 25,000 people.

The City owns two separate networks. In addition to the fiber used by city facilities, there is a separate dark fiber network. The city installed the dark fiber with the intention of leasing it to the Staunton Economic Development Authority. The Authority then leases it to local phone, Internet, and wireless provider, MGW. MGW serves residential and commercial customers in south and west Virginia.

In 2012, the city built a new fiber institutional network to avoid having to lease from the private sector.

We touched base with Kurt Plowman who told us that the fiber connects twelve major city facilities, including libraries, fires stations, and public works facilities. There are also over fifty traffic signal cabinets and ten facilities in Gypsy Hill Park on the fiber.

When compared with the city's past lease payments for fiber and data circuits, payback will be complete in 10 years. Additionally, there are more facilities connected and bandwidth is increased.

Plowman also told us that the $1.25 million cost of the project was well below estimates. The build was a Public-Private Educational Facilities Infrastructure Act (PPEA) project in conjunction with Lumos Networks from Waynesboro, Virginia. Lumos performed the engineering, contracting, and project management in exchange for several strands of the fiber. Plowman tells us that all connections are 1 gig but that there is considerable room to increase capacity. Additional dark fiber was engineered into some routes for future expansion. Schools and libraries are connected for free. Update: We connected with Kurt Plowman again who told us that prior to Staunton's infrastructure investment, schools were paying $2,000 per month just to lease fiber.

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In addition to serving schools, libraries, and government facilities, the fiber supports the free wi-fi. From the article:

For Staunton, the driver for public Wi-Fi was the creation of a 30-mile fiber optic city backbone about two years ago to replace the city’s leased lines. Thirteen years ago, telecos had leased the city’s dark fiber, but over the years they had become more interested in selling services than capacity, and the city decided to build out its own infrastructure in cooperation with a local carrier.

“Cost was a driving factor, along with bandwidth,” Plowman said. “We built a better network as a public-private partnership and saved a lot of money in the long run.”

The fiber links about 30 government locations, including Gypsy Hill Park, which has heavy use all summer. The park’s bandstand offers entertainment four or five times a week throughout the summer and there are frequent festivals and other activities. Officials decided that, “for what we’re spending putting fiber in, let’s put something in to give the public something for the expense,” Plowman said.

Staunton first invested in wi-fi about 10 years ago when it was installed in the public library. While city leaders considered providing it in other areas, they did not feel technology was ready to meet their needs. They were also concerned about competing with private carriers. Technology has since advanced and the city has taken special steps to avoid competing with private carriers in the vicinity of the park.

“I’m almost embarrassed to say how easy it was,” Plowman said of the wireless segment. “It was an opportunity to give something back to the public.”