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Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, May 22, 2014
Better WiFi coverage in the works for downtown Stonington

by Rich Hewitt

Downtown Stonington will soon get upgraded WiFi service.

The selectmen earlier this month approved the plan to add the WiFi technology to sites along Main Street that will broaden the WiFi accessibility along Main Street. WiFi is the wireless technology that allows users to connect to the Internet and, according to Town Manager Kathleen Billings-Pezaris, will allow locals and visitors to have Internet service throughout the downtown.

The project is similar to the one currently under way in Castine, where the technology is being installed at the town dock, Billings-Pezaris said, noting that she has been working with Time-Warner, the Internet provider and Tim Henderson of PC Fitness in Castine, who will install the equipment once he has completed the Castine project. In Stonington, the project will involve installing wireless boxes at different locations in the downtown area that will broadcast the WiFi signal, she said.

“It’s good that they’re doing it in Castine first,” she said. “That way if they run into any issues, they’ll have them all solved. We won’t be the guinea pigs.”

There is no estimate on the cost of the project, she said. The cost will depend on the amount of coverage for the wireless boxes over the water and around buildings. The improvements will benefit everyone, since it will boost the WiFi signal beyond the current service at the library.

“It’s going to help, especially for people with smart phones,” she said. “They’ll be able to check their emails and make phone calls.”

The expansion of the service is a stop-gap measure as the town continues its efforts to improve cell phone reception in the downtown area. Billings-Pezaris said she has looked into the possibility of installing a repeater downtown. That has problems, however. Because of the sharp drop in elevation going down to the water, the cell phone signals reaching the downtown are very weak, she said.

“Having a repeater there, it would just be repeating no signal or a lousy signal,” she said.

Another option would be to install a cell tower in town that would be able to reach downtown and the surrounding areas. She’s already talked with a tower installer and someone already has visited the town to determine whether a tower would work. The “if you build it, they will come” approach does have some problems. Billings-Pezaris indicated that there is no guarantee that all or any of the cell phone companies would be willing to install their equipment on a tower if it were built. That’s the part of the plan that she is investigating now.

“There’s no sense to build a tower if there’s no interest in companies using it,” she said.

Even if there is interest, it will take some time to get the tower built and the equipment installed.