COLUMBIA — During the first week of July, 1,665 laptops or other Wi-Fi-enabled devices connected to the free network offered outdoors in downtown Columbia.
Full Stream Wireless, which is providing the service for the Downtown Community Improvement District, also reported that on July 4, when Fire in the Sky was held downtown, about 1,000 users connected.
On a typical day, between 500 and 750 users on average are connecting, according to the Full Stream data shared by Carrie Gartner, the district's executive director. At any given point during the day, between 30 and 45 users are online, the data also showed.
A six-month trial of the network began May 16. It pops up on devices as "District Free Wi-Fi."
The network still seems to be in need of some publicity. Only two of 15 people sitting outside downtown over several days in late June had heard about it.
"I think I was just sitting down here one day with my phone, and I had my Wi-Fi turned on. And I saw there was Wi-Fi here and I connected to it. And then, a couple of weeks later, I came down with my computer," said Mitchell Frechmann, who was using the free Wi-Fi recently while he sat on a bench at Flat Branch Park.
"I don’t know exactly where it’s available — I know it’s available here in Flat Branch Park," Frechmann said. "... I think letting people know that it’s there would definitely make more people using it."
Natalie Schroeder, who recently moved to Columbia from St. Louis, was sitting outside Starbucks on South Ninth Street when she stumbled onto the downtown Wi-Fi. "You know, I just actually came down here and saw the signal on my phone," Schroeder said.
She said that she didn’t see any information or sign about the free Wi-Fi in the downtown area and that more visitors would use the service if there were signs letting them know there was free Wi-Fi in certain areas.
"We do need to get the word out more, and we do realize that," Gartner said.
Gartner said the district handed out cards to downtown shops and restaurants to put in customers' bags and plans to put up posters.
In deciding whether to continue the service after the trial ends in October, the district will look at the overall picture of how much it is being used in relation to other projects it might want to fund, she said.
"The last thing we want to do is provide a service that nobody is using, or is, for some reason, not set out properly so people get frustrated and don’t use it," Gartner said. "Ideally, it’s a highly popular project, and it’s one of the top projects in our wish list."
The free service is available on Broadway and Ninth Street and at Flat Branch Park and Courthouse Plaza. It is being funded by a half-cent sales tax on downtown retail businesses, that was approved in November 2011.
Gartner said the service is meant to serve only the public space and not compete with private wireless service providers used in businesses.
"So if you're at Ninth at Summerfest, you can upload pictures on your Facebook account of the concert, or you can text a friend and say, 'Where are you? I'm trying to meet you,'" Gartner said.
A strong motivation in offering the service is to attract more visitors downtown and enhance their experiences there, according to the district. Opinions vary so far on whether that is happening.
Skip Ducharme, who owns Lakota Coffee, said that the public Wi-Fi seems to be a creative idea but that with all the private Wi-Fi that's available now, he hasn't really seen an increase in customers. He said that even if the district Wi-Fi bleeds into his store, he will continue to provide private Wi-Fi for customers.
"I mean, the most important product here used to be the coffee. But now, people come in to use the Internet and drink coffee," Ducharme said. "If Wi-Fi goes down, I see people get up and walk out the door and go somewhere else. So it’s like if I don’t have it, I won’t be in business."
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