It use to be the case that the only people forced out of restaurants, coffee shops, law offices and other public buildings to do their business were folks needing to smoke a cigarette. In the case of downtown Chestertown, you might want to add those trying to find a cell or a wifi signal.
Rain or shine, these poor souls can be found at peak times on High Street waving their cellphone praying that a connection can be found. Some succeed and some fail, depending on their service provider, but this daily spectacle on High Street can be a kind of charming reminder of how remote Chestertown remains.
But it also communicates to anyone who relies on the internet to do their work that our community is not quite open for business.
At a time when Chestertown is seriously developing a sophisticated economic development game plan, this may also be a good opportunity to reevaluate downtown’s current connectivity to make sure we don’t leave that impression.
One of the more gratifying moments for anyone running a business is to be in a new location and instantly gain access to a wifi network without a password. And, on the other side of the equation, there is nothing is more terrifying as not being able to get a stable cellular connection when you really need it.
Our typical business visitor is unpleasantly surprised with the lack of connectivity to reach the world’s information and commerce highway. As a result, the unconnected may be late for a meeting, lose a deal, not able to call the home office, or even tell their family they are running late.
While these examples do not typically rise to the level being life-threatening, they do send a very clear message that Chestertown remains comfortably in the 20th Century, i.e. a deal killer for young entrepreneurs, second home owners, and even retirees, who require 7/24 connectivity for themselves and their customers/visitors.
The tragedy of being typecast as a dark town is that it’s not accurate. The Town of Chestertown, through government grants, did indeed create a free outdoor public wifi network just a few years ago. And some stores and businesses have allowed customers or clients get on their own servers without password protection. And finally, Chestertown, just for the record, literally sits on one of the most robust fiber optic networks in the country.
So why does Chestertown connectivity still suck?
There are a few reasons. The first is that without a cell tower close to downtown, AT&T and Verizon Wireless customers (Sprint & T-Mobile seem to do better) lose a considerable amount of their internet and phone access range. Second, many businesses and stores (including Washington College’s campus) think that allowing open access to their networks will expose them to security risks. And finally, there is has been no coordinated effort yet to create a downtown connectivity strategy. On the latter, the time seems right to start such an effort.
By working together, Chestertown’s downtown stakeholders can very quickly end our era of dodgy connectivity for a surprisingly microscopic investment. By using the Town’s existing wifi network as its foundation, stores, law offices, banks and other public spaces can purchase, or can be provided with, very affordable booster routers ($50 -$100) to carry Chestertown’s free signal into their places of business. By doing so, Chestertown’s visitors can not only access the web, but they can regain the use of their cell phones since all carriers now allow cell phone calls to be placed through the internet rather than cellular radio signals. The only long-term cost would be the electricity needed for the router itself. Peanuts.
This is the kind of “low-hanging fruit” strategy one hopes Chestertown can deploy sooner rather than later as it plots its long-term goals for large and more complex economic development opportunities down the road.