Norwich Public Utilities to install free public internet hot spots in city neighborhoods
Norwich — In spring of 2020, city and school leaders scrambled to provide internet access with individual so-call hot spots for homes and apartments for families in need and a few scattered larger units at public sites.
The city’s network of free internet access is about to get much broader.
Norwich Public Utilities officials this week unveiled a plan in partnership with the Connecticut Education Network to bring free high-speed, high-capacity public Wi-Fi to more than a dozen locations in the city. Many will be placed in densely populated neighborhoods identified by school officials as high need areas. Others will be at or near public buildings or parks, where residents and students could go to connect and download school assignments or submit completed schoolwork.
John Covey, information technology manager for NPU, said the project is being spearheaded by CEN in 107 cities and towns across the state to provide high-speed devices at no cost to the community for one year. In Norwich, the devices will be turned over to NPU after that period, and NPU will continue the free service, Covey said.
These are not in-home Wi-Fi hotspots or routers, Covey said. He compared the difference as a kitchen faucet for the home device to a fire hydrant for the public devices, which are about the size of a laptop with antenna attached. Each one is powerful enough to serve about two urban blocks and about 100 connections at a time.
NPU initially received eight devices from the state, and CEN provided five additional units at no cost.
Locations had to be chosen along the NPU’s current fiber optic network, which was installed to serve NPU, city government buildings and city schools.
The 13 sites include several locations downtown and in Greeneville, including Boswell Avenue-Hickory Street, Central Avenue-North Main Street, 12th Street-Central Avenue, Boswell Avenue-North Main Street, Lake Street-Boswell Avenue and the NPU headquarters and customer service center in Greeneville.
Units will be placed at the Howard T. Brown Memorial Park at Norwich Harbor, at City Hall, the Rose City Senior Center, police department and Otis Library. The device at Otis Library is installed already, Covey said.
Covey projected installations will begin in mid-July and will be in place by the start of next school year.
The devices alone cost about $5,000 each, but installation could run as high as $10,000 to $15,000 per site, depending on the amount of infrastructure is needed. NPU will cut the cost by using only areas already along the utility’s fiber optic network and where infrastructure exists to hang the devices — such as on existing poles or public buildings or where the city already has public security cameras. NPU line crews will do the installations on their regular work time, NPU officials said.
“This is a terrific service we are going to be able to provide for a big chunk of the community,” NPU spokesman Chris Riley said. “A no-cost service NPU will be able to provide to the community.”
Norwich Human Services Director Lee Ann Gomes, who worked last spring to secure in-home internet connections and devices throughout the city when the pandemic hit, welcomed the project.
“The pandemic showed how divided we are as a community, with people with and without internet access,” Gomes said. “People couldn’t apply for unemployment or even order toilet paper. People were going to parking lots to hook up to Wi-Fi.”
The new Wi-Fi devices will offer two connection choices. The CT Public access will be a “one-click” connection. The second connection, Eduroam, will allow students to use their authorized passwords to sign into their specific schools to download their assignments, submit classwork or interact with their schools.
The Wi-Fi devices will have filters to prohibit access to pornography, gambling sites or the purchase of alcohol or drugs. But everyday shopping will be allowed, Covey said.
NFA spokesman Michael O’Farrell said the school provided data to NPU on where dense populations of students in need of the service live in Norwich. NPU correlated that information with the nearest available infrastructure to hang the devices.
If students do not live in those immediate neighborhoods, they can drive or ride bicycles to the area, sign in and download assignments or submit completed work. NFA has a similar device for school and staff only on the Tirrell Building on campus.
“We’re trying to have an effective system,” O’Farrell said. “In terms of access and breaking down barriers, it’s a tool and a significant tool to do that.”