COLUMBIA — The Downtown Community Improvement District will move forward with plans to provide free downtown Wi-Fi by implementing a six-month pilot program, which will begin in May.
The district will accept proposals from potential service providers until noon on Dec. 14. The interview, selection and contracting process will begin Dec. 28, and a winning bidder will be selected around Jan. 7.
The pilot program will run from May 1 to Oct. 31.
The Downtown Community Improvement District promised a plan for the Wi-Fi service after a new sales tax passed last November. The tax is expected to generate $400,000. Initially, the improvement district budgeted a district-wide Wi-Fi project that would cost $30,000 to install and another $30,000 in annual operating expenses.
Carrie Gartner, executive director of the improvement district, said those estimates break down to around $2,500 per month for a 50-block area. Gartner said the board is hoping the new proposals will help make the estimated costs more concrete.
Skip Walther, a member of the improvement district board, said that since the initial budget approval, the board has decided to implement a pilot project instead of the district-wide project. This pilot would cover a smaller area and cost less. It will "test the feasibility of and desire for free wireless service for customers and visitors," according to the improvement district's request for proposal document.
Gartner said the project isn't trying to compete with or replace Wi-Fi already provided by downtown businesses.
"Businesses may give you a hot spot limited to their shop or restaurant, but this would give you connectivity throughout the district," Gartner said in an email. "Imagine following a map, using the True/False app or taking an online public art tour without this connectivity."
If the pilot project is successful, the improvement district would need to revisit the originally budgeted estimates. Walther said the board would measure the success of the pilot through the number of people who use the Wi-Fi service.
"If 5,000, 10,000 or even 20,000 people are using it every month, it's far easier to justify the expenditures of public funds on the project," Walther said. "Surveying would also be helpful, because then we could get personal feedback on who uses the system, but ultimately the numbers would be the most important factor."
Proposed areas for the pilot include:
- Ninth Street, from Ash Street to between University Avenue and Elm Street
- Courthouse Square on North Eighth Street.
- Broadway, from Fourth Street to Hitt Street
- Flat Branch Park
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