Editorial: Downtown Connectivity and Economic Development

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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.

Letters to Editor

  1. Alex Smolens says:

    Last time I checked, the town’s Wifi was fed by the a 10 megabit internet connection (I believe the Maryland Sailor network) to a router that wasn’t capable of handling more than half a dozen light users, and maybe three heavy users. The router distributing the bandwidth had 250 leases, and was stuck in an endless reboot loop. You could make it work by manually entering some information, but for the average user, it’s a bust. As it sits right now, the only thing the town WiFi does is impact the usability of WiFi within the very businesses you’re talking about. You also have the Public Library, Sam’s, Evergrain, and Dunkin Donuts – All of which have free, open hot spots that are easily accessible from the street.

    Fixing this isn’t simply a matter of a trip to Radioshack, and 10 minutes of ingenuity (or Googling). To do what you’re talking about would require a major hardware upgrade to handle the 500+ daily users, and literally, the thousands of devices that Down rigging Weekend, or the Tea Party would bring. Were it so simple and cheap as what you’ve illustrated, I think the Town would have done so already. The easiest answer would be having all of the businesses downtown set up a guest Wireless network with the same name, where devices would just seamlessly roam as you walked down the street. I think most store owners would balk at the prospect of an internet slowdown because tourists feel the need to watch Netflix in their car. You also have the risk of people cancelling their own internet entirely, simply to use the free service provided by others.

    • Steve Payne says:

      I agree. Using the existing town WiFi would need a major overhaul. It’s very slow and limited. Sometimes I can’t even log on (including yesterday AM)

  2. Nancy McGuire says:

    The reason why our connectivity is so poor is the very same reason why everyone gave up on the iSign. Twenty some businesses voted for the iSign and were delighted when Chestertown was to have a central wifi system for downtown. We worked on the connectivity for the iSign for several years without success. Maybe it is time to seriously look into what other Towns are offering and the solutions they have found. Not for the iSign but “a sophisticated economic development game plan”.

    • Alex Smolens says:

      Nancy,

      In my opinion, you are absolutely correct. Conceptually, both ideas are sound, however the engineering and implementation were lacking.

  3. Fletcher R. Hall says:

    The connectivity issue is just one example of the critical issues causing Chestertown to be mired in another century.
    This issue, any many others, have been cussed and discussed for decades. How many economic development plans has Chestertown had over the years? Downtown looks much like it did when I was a student at Washington College from 1959-1963, over 50 years ago. Perhaps their were more stores and other establishments then. Without connectivity and other vital communications/technology available, Chestertown will remain in another century. Back in the day, is no longer acceptable. How will the college and the town attract new faces without the availability of technology. These very real deficiencies need attention now.
    Rural America is disappearing. I should know, as a native of a really small town on the Eastern Shore, who had the privilege to attend Washington College.

    No real technology was needed then. It is now. So is a new vision and direction, if Chestertown is to survive and thrive.

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