“It’s usually from the men so their wives can keep shopping,” Gernandt said.
This tourist season, Gernandt will have good news for all those husbands. By April, anyone visiting downtown can pick a bench, flip open their laptop and log-on. Downtown Waynesville is going wi-fi.
“You would be surprised how many people travel with their laptops,” said Johnnie Curé, owner of Southern Exposure Realty. Curé makes free public wireless available throughout their real estate office on Main Street.
“It’s a tremendous service. We have people who come in and ask a billion questions,” Curé said. Whether it’s how to get to Looking Glass Falls or a phone number for dinner reservations, those with a laptop can plop down and look it up.
Lunch hour at Smoky Mountain Coffee Roasters and Café on Main Street typically sports at least a few customers clicking away on laptops at one of the few wireless hotspots downtown.
“There are definitely people seeking that out,” said Kevin Duckett, the owner. “They like to be able to sit down and have a cup of coffee at the café and check email or whatever. That’s why I offer it.”
Curé said people visiting here will be impressed with downtown-wide free wireless.
“It is going to say something about us,” Curé said. “We may be in the mountains, but we know what’s happening. We are an uptown community.”
It’s certainly a line that Mark Clasby, economic development director for Haywood County, will drop when pitching the area as an ideal location to business prospects.
“It wouldn’t close the deal, but it would resonate well,” Clasby said. “It shows that we are a progressive community, that we’re up to date.”
Clasby has been a champion of a downtown wireless initiative for several years.
“I think it is fabulous. It is just fantastic,” Clasby said.
The wireless will be useful for more than just tourists and visitors. Paralegals researching files at the courthouse can step outside and shoot an email back to the office. A reporter covering a controversial public hearing can update the newspaper’s Web site part-way through the meeting with the latest bulletin. A saleswoman between appointments can check her email while filling up at Exxon.
“Waynesville is such a likely candidate for a downtown wi-fi,” said John Howell, a telecommunications consultant who lives in Haywood County. “It’s got a historical shopping district where people can sit on park benches and sip on their coffee with their laptops and download their email.”
How it will work
A free wireless Internet signal will be broadcast from an antennae mounted on the roof of town hall. It’s not certain exactly how far the wireless signal will reach. Tests of the signal indicate it will reach for several blocks in all directions from town hall, but the exact boundary isn’t pinpointed yet.
“We won’t know until we get out there and turn it on,” said Jimmy Wynn, owner of WynnComm, an Internet company hosting the wireless service.
Another wait-and-see element is how well the wireless signal will work inside buildings, like whether it will reach the booth at the back of Whitman’s. If it’s not strong enough, the signal can be ramped up with a booster by any business.
“Any business on Main Street could put a little antennae in their window and bring it on inside their business,” Howell said.
One question on merchant’s minds: can they cancel their Internet service and rely on the wireless network? The answer is no.
“That’s not what it’s for,” Wynn said. “It is for casual travelers coming into Waynesville wanting to check their email or someone taking their lunch downtown.”
Computers will be booted off the wireless network after a certain length of time to ensure businesses don’t try to use it as their primary Internet service. The wireless network has a limited capacity — if too many people are using it at once, it will get slower. But there’s a pretty large threshold for users before a slow down would be noticeable.
Wynn said Internet users shouldn’t be afraid of checking their email or making on-line purchases with their credit card numbers while logged on to the wireless network. Web sites offering those transactions should have their own firewalls, preventing hackers from stealing secure information despite the use of a public wireless connection.
Wynn said it’s a big boon for Waynesville.
“I think it will help promote downtown Waynesville,” Wynn said. “In small towns like Waynesville it is not very pervasive right now.” It is more common in larger cities, making Waynesville one of the first of its size in the state to have a free public wireless in their downtown district.
John Howell, a local telecommunications industry consultant, brokered the free wireless deal as part of WynnComm’s contract to be the network provider for the county and town. Howell arranged for WynnComm to provide the free wireless signal downtown for the 20 year length of its contract to get the town’s and county’s business.
“It is kind of hard to explain how that happened,” said Wynn. It was just something that everyone seemed interested in.
Lee Galloway, the Waynesville town manager, said he was glad the town could assist with the initiative.