August 4, 2008

Wireless for Allbeing Set Up in Uptown Normal, Other Sites

By Mary Ann Ford

NORMAL - David Hands goes to uptown Normal about an hour or so every weekday to use the Wi-Fi connections at The Coffee Hound or The Coffeehouse and Deli.

"Wi-Fi brings me downtown," said Hands, owner of Great Clips at the new Constitution Trail Centre in north Normal. His businessdoesn't have wireless access.

But now Hands and others will have several other options for a free connection to the Internet.

The town recently completed the first phase of a new system that brings the wireless network outside all uptown businesses, to Anderson and Fairview parks, and at Champion Fields at Maxwell Park.

"That's great," said Hands. "I'll use it. I can eat lunch (and connect to the Wi-Fi) at the park. As a business owner, it's extremely valuable to me but for (Illinois State University) students, it's phenomenal."

Free public Internet access is one of the added bonuses of the wireless system the town installed to improve connections for its Adelaide Street fire station, police officers on patrol and the town's two swimming pools, said Mindy Hite, Normal's director of information technology.

"It improves the connection to our network," she said. "Two- thirds of all the EMT (emergency medical technician) runs now have the slowest connection when they do their reports."

Special connections for police

In addition, the wireless network will allow a live feed from the cameras at the town's new College Avenue parking deck to the police department, Hite said. The town also is testing a live feed from some of its police cars.

The $116,401 system hopefully will help better move the long lines of people waiting to get into the town's swimming pools, Hite said. The system provides a better connection from the pool's admission areas and concession stands to the town's main network.

Previously, Hite said, those areas were connected to the main network through a high-speed line the town leased for about $3,800 a year. The Wi-Fi system will eliminate the need for that service and its cost.

"It will provide better customer service," said Hite. "Now people get stacked up" waiting to get into the pool or purchase concessions.

The added bonus for residents is the availability of free Internet in several areas of town.

"People getting off the train will have access," she said. "It's also a marketing tool for locating businesses to uptown."

Ideally, the system eventually will be throughout town. But Hite said that comes at a hefty $2.5 million. Some of that cost could be covered by grants.

Neil Cole, a graduate of ISU who returns to Normal each summer, said he's glad businesses like The Coffeehouse & Deli have the Wi- Fi service available, but he doubts he would take advantage of the outside Wi-Fi.

Cole considers anything he does on the computer "work" and that's not something he wants to do at a park.

"Consider the inconveniences," he said, noting a glare from the sun and outside noises. "I'm not an enthusiastic supporter."

Part of trend

Just the same, it's a trend many communities are going toward. Bloomington has Wi-Fi at U.S. Cellular Coliseum and at City Hall, said City Manager Tom Hamilton, and recently got a grant from State Farm Insurance Cos. to install cameras in downtown Bloomington.

The camera system will be connected to the police station through Wi-Fi, ultimately making the wireless network available in areas around downtown Bloomington. Hamilton said it should be up and running within a year.

Wi-Fi ("wireless fidelity") lets users connect their computers to the Internet to get e-mail or go to Web sites without using a standard plug connection.

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