Downtown businesses are reflected in a curved window on Aug. 16, 2020, as a bicyclist passes at the right in downtown Waterville. More than half million users have logged on to Downtown Waterville Wi-Fi, the city’s free public outdoor network, the Central Maine Growth Council announced.  Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

WATERVILLE — During the Waterville Rocks! concert series at Castonguay Square, before the coronavirus pandemic, Bruce White logged onto the city’s free outdoor Wi-Fi network to share a photo of the concert on his social media pages.

White is among the more than half million users who have logged on to Downtown Waterville Wi-Fi (DWW), the city’s free public outdoor network, since its August 2018 inception, the Central Maine Growth Council announced earlier this month.

“I just found it was better to use the Wi-Fi than the cell data,” said White, who represents part of Waterville as a state representative for District 109. White said he think it is a nice option, because many data plans are structured to slow down after the user hits a certain amount.

Waterville isn’t the only Maine municipality with free downtown Wi-Fi. Millinocket, Augusta and Camden also have areas with free internet access.

DWW users can access the wireless network across downtown Waterville. It is accessible going north to south from Post Office Square to the Hathaway Creative Center and going east to west from Head of Falls to The Concourse. Essentially, downtown Waterville is completely covered.

Spearheaded by the Central Maine Growth Council and Colby College, the network is owned and operated by the growth council. Sponsors include Kennebec Savings Bank, Thomas College’s Harold Alfond Institute for Business Innovation, MaineGeneral and Northern Light Inland Hospital.

Garvan Donegan, director of planning, innovation and economic development for Central Maine Growth Council, said the network connects residents and visitors to the city’s businesses.

According to monthly data reports provided by Central Maine Growth Council, as many as 28,000 visitors have logged on to the network in a given month before the pandemic. More users log on in the spring and summer months, as more people spend time outdoors. Over 10,000 visitors have used the network per month for all but four of the 35 months the service has been offered.

“Supporting downtown Waterville’s small businesses by enhancing their digital presence through increasing access to online tools, like e-commerce, is essential to the community’s economic vitality,” Donegan said. “While aiming to facilitate the continuity of economic development in the district as more businesses expand and grow into the area, we hope visitors and residents will be more likely to spend time downtown while enjoying its amenities.”

Lyn Smith said in an email she has used DWW from time to time, but does not love the fact that she has to sign up to use it every single time. This week, the system is down as a result of construction starting on Main and Front Streets as they go from one-way traffic to two-way traffic. A hotspot had to be moved off the Sterns building, and the system should be back up and running soon.

“It’s great to offer the service, but I don’t use it much,” Smith wrote. “It’s an idea that’s better in theory than practice.”

Once construction is completed downtown, Central Maine Growth Council plans on conducting a survey on public Wi-Fi including areas of interest, new event location, usage and time spent. DWW data is stripped of personal information in the interest of offering it to everyone.

“More broadly, I would classify our DWW as a place-based economics strategy — meaning the goal of the DWW initiative includes growing community and public amenities within a given location or setting (i.e. the downtown),” Donegan wrote. “So, a traditional economic impact analysis is also not necessarily how we quantify success — as we like to say, Downtown wifi is another tool in our toolbox!”

As a Waterville politician and resident, White expects DWW usage to pick up.

As Main Street gets revitalized and there are spots to sit, maybe there will be someone sitting out there on a nice day with a laptop,” White said. “It’s still a very good option for people who don’t have a lot of data to use.”

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