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Wednesday, 24 February 2010 17:50

Free wireless in downtown Waynesville a hit or miss affair

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There’s free wireless up for grabs to anyone ambling down Main Street in Waynesville, but it’s so obscure that even those who work downtown are oblivious to its existence.

When tourists file into stores and restaurants asking where they can find wireless internet access — a common occurrence — employees point them to the few businesses nearby that offer it rather than ask them to simply step back outside and flip their laptops open on the sidewalk.

On the other hand, those who are in the know about the amenity also know that it has worked poorly in the past.

“We actually did have quite a few phone calls that it wasn’t working over the last year,” said Buffy Messer, director of the Downtown Waynesville Association. “Some of the phone calls we received were from frustrated folks.”

Messer said she has seen visitors using the wireless over the summer, but she hesitates to actively publicize it because of its hit-or-miss status.

“My understanding is that it works, but that it does not work particularly well,” said Alison Melnikova, assistant town manager of Waynesville.

“It certainly never developed the way we anticipated,” said Town Manager Lee Galloway.

Meanwhile, the telecommunications company that runs it, Wynncom, said it was unaware of any problems until Smoky Mountain News contacted its headquarters in Lexington. N.C.

“We weren’t aware of that,” said owner Jimmy Wynn. “Nobody had complained about it.”

No one called up the company, because no entity in Waynesville is expressly responsible for ensuring the wireless works — or for that matter, advertising it to the public.

“It’s something that I think the private sector needs to promote rather than the Town of Waynesville,” said Galloway.

The free, public wireless access supposedly went live three years ago. Wynncom offered it as a free bonus to the Town of Waynesville, while bargaining with Haywood County to land a contract to install a fiberoptic line.

That endeavor hasn’t gone well, either. Haywood County filed a lawsuit against Wynncom after it failed to deliver adequate telephone services on the fiberoptic line.

The county recently dropped the suit and bought the fiberoptic line from the company, deciding to go with another telecommunications company for services instead.

Wireless plans originally called for an antennae on the roof of town hall and a repeater on the roof of the historic courthouse to provide coverage the length of Main Street. But the courthouse antennae was never installed, which Wynn blamed on renovations to the historic building over the years.

But David Cotton, Haywood county manager, said Wynncom has never requested access to install any equipment on the courthouse roof.

While Haywood County has expressed interest in independently setting up free wireless inside the courthouse on Main Street, the recession has blocked progress on that goal.

“We definitely want to get wireless Internet access inside the justice center and courthouse,” said Kristy Wood, director of information technology for the county. “That’s been a goal that we’ve had for over a year. Under such tight budget constraints, we haven’t been able to move forward.”

The wireless would be especially useful to journalists covering government meetings and lawyers during court proceedings, Wood said.

Wynncom says it has now fixed the wireless, which is supposed to be accessible along Main Street from the Town of Waynesville building to the Haywood County courthouse. But the signal decidedly loses its strength as users near the courthouse.

The router had been working, but services were still down, Wynn said.

 

On street only

There is, however, one lingering problem with the wireless: misunderstandings about what it’s for.

Internet junkies who want to hole up inside a building on Main Street perusing the Internet for hours for free are out of luck. The connection is only meant to be accessible outside.

“Nothing more,” said John Howell, a telecommunications consultant in Haywood County who negotiated the contract. “Anything else would have simply been extra.”

It’s aimed to serve visitors — not businesses or apartment dwellers downtown looking for a way around paying for internet service.

“It was not the intent to provide free access to people that can pay for it,” said Wynn. “It was not designed for a company to use for their benefit for nothing.”

Amanda Collier, manager of Ceviches on Main, said she had no idea that free wireless was available outside the restaurant, but she acknowledged the benefits of having the amenity.

For example, tourists could quickly look up directions to nearby attractions by simply jumping on their laptops.

“It’d be a lot easier, a lot more convenient,” said Collier.

But after learning about the wireless, Stuart Smith, an employee at Pheasant Hill, said the service doesn’t make much sense on Main Street. Few would find it convenient to take to the streets with their laptops in tow.

“Unless there’s more café seating, I don’t think it’s very useful,” said Stuart Smith.

Owen Thorp, an O’Malley’s employee, pointed out one other downside of offering wireless outside only: battery life.

“I’d never use it...my battery only lasts a minute and a half,” said Thorp.

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