HUNTINGTON – A vision to bring safe and free wireless internet service to downtown Huntington is closer to becoming reality.

Officials said they are hoping to launch “FREEinDOWNTOWN” live around the first or second week of August.

“This is a project that Cabell Huntington Hospital has been supporting, along with city leaders, downtown businesses and Arx Technologies,” said Gene Preston, vice president of physician services, managed care and pharmacy operations at Cabell Huntington Hospital.

Preston said the initial vision was to create a way for downtown Huntington businesses to be able to compete in the retail market.

“How do we compete as a retail market with Amazon, Best Buy and Walmart as we watch all the products being purchased outside city limits? One answer is to bring free wireless internet service to downtown Huntington,” Preston said. “If we can network downtown Huntington, we can put downtown Huntington retail online.”

Preston says he met with Ian Wiley, the director of enterprise solutions for Arx Technologies, to find out if it could be done and what the costs would be for the project.

“We also met with Huntington Mayor Steve Williams and some of the property owners downtown, and everyone was very supportive of the project,” Preston said.

The next step was a lease agreement approved by Huntington City Council in August of last year between the city and Arx Technologies.

The agreement allows Arx Technologies to rent space on seven light poles for $1 per year per pole in the downtown area for the purpose of installing Wi-Fi service equipment. The term of the agreement is 10 years, though the city is allowed to terminate the agreement should the internet service cease to remain free to the public.

No city funds are being used for the project, but funding was needed. So Bradley Burck, vice president of the Cabell Huntington Hospital Foundation, became involved.

“It’s not as expensive as people might think that it is because we can do this without digging holes in the ground and laying fiber optic cable,” Burck said. “So many downtown businesses want the downtown area to have fast, safe and free internet service. We received lots of support.”

Burck said in addition to Cabell Huntington Hospital and its foundation, Arx Technologies, Strictly Business and a private conglomeration of businesses have all donated funds to buy equipment or support the project with use of their time and buildings.

“The project’s initial phase has cost between $20,000 and $30,000 to purchase equipment, but we have had about that same amount of investment in free time and labor,” Burck said.

Just this past week, Arx Technologies workers have been installing the internet transponders.

“This free internet service is actually fiber fed to our wireless backbone,” Wiley explained. “This is probably one of the very few places in the state that utilizes millimeter wave wireless technology to create a wireless backbone in a metropolitan area.”

Wiley said the access points are on the seven light poles and some private buildings. Users will access the Wi-Fi through a social media login. The internet speed will be around 500 megabits.

“In the wireless world, 500 megabits is high-speed service,” Wiley said.

“We have 10 of 11 access points up, and once we get the last one completed we will begin testing,” he said.

Burck said the hope is to go live with the service in the first or second week of August.

“If everything works like it is supposed to work after testing, we will push it live,” he said.

Once launched, users will be able to access the free Wi-Fi in a roughly two-block radius from 8th Street to 10th Street and 3rd Avenue to 4th Avenue as well as around the Pullman Square courtyard, Burck said.

“The future is to expand down 4th Avenue toward the Marshall University campus,” Burck said.

Burck says the high-speed free internet service for downtown will be Huntington’s private network, and future funding efforts to support expansion will also come from advertising on the network’s page.

“There are thousands and thousands of people that walk through downtown that will be accessing this network, so the access page will be pretty valuable to businesses that may want to advertise,” he said.

“As we grow and expand this effort, we believe Huntington can become a ‘smart city,'” Preston added. “I think this project is a good example of the Huntington spirit with organizations and individuals coming together to contribute to something I believe can be revolutionary. It’s very exciting.”

Huntington City Council vice chairman Alex Vence said the promise of free Wi-Fi will be an added bonus to the downtown area.

“I think it’s a wonderful amenity for us to have available, especially in this day and time where everybody is connected to their smartphone and so much communication is done electronically,” said Vence, who represents District 3, which includes much of the downtown. “I welcome it, and I’m very excited to see it implemented … it’s another amenity and another convenience that I think a lot of people will utilize.”

Kimberly Tate, a Wake Forest University student doing a rotation at Cabell Huntington Hospital for a month, said free internet service is available in her hometown of Greensboro, North Carolina.

“Free downtown Wi-Fi draws people back into public spaces, so I think it’s a great idea,” she said.

Grace Kinder, of Barboursville, was at The Market on 3rd Avenue on Thursday using its free internet service.

“Right now, there are not many spots in downtown Huntington to get free internet service,” she said. “Getting free internet in more places downtown will get more people here.”

Follow reporter Fred Pace at Facebook.com/FredPaceHD and via Twitter @FredPaceHD.





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