Government

Marion council exploring Wi-Fi - possibly free - in public spaces

One option: Buy more 'hot spots' to circulate through library

Jenn and Daniel Coleman of Marion use the public Wi-Fi in late March at the Marion Public Library, which boosted its sig
Jenn and Daniel Coleman of Marion use the public Wi-Fi in late March at the Marion Public Library, which boosted its signal while the library is closed because of the coronavirus. The city is exploring communitywide Wi-Fi. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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MARION — The Marion City Council is exploring installing Wi-Fi in public spaces as part of its response to the coronavirus.

The council is expected to direct city staff Thursday to prepare a plan for a citywide fiber-optic network.

“A lot more people are working from home. Schools may not be able to teach in a traditional classroom setting if there is a surge (in coronavirus cases) this fall,” City Manager Lon Pluckhahn said during a council work session Tuesday.

“As we continue to have discussions with the Community Recovery Task Force about what this fall could look like, the question was posed whether we need to put in infrastructure for Wi-Fi in the plaza area.”

If the council chooses to move forward with the Wi-Fi initiative, it would send a request for proposals to internet providers to get the best deal, possibly offering it for free, Pluckhahn said.

The Wi-Fi could be available to residents in areas like the Uptown Plaza, Lowe Park and Thomas Park for two- to three-hour sessions. Students could be eligible for unlimited Wi-Fi access in those public spaces.

“To have widely available Wi-Fi for people who don’t have access ... it is an amenity,” Mayor Nick AbouAssally said. “But I think sometimes we assume everyone has access to the internet, and it’s just not true.”

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Marion Public Library Director Hollie Trenary said Wi-Fi access is the No. 1 demand the library is seeing right now.

The library has access to 75 mobile hot spots that circulate through the metro library network — with a 200-person waiting list, she said.

Instead of implementing citywide Wi-Fi, the city could invest in more hot spots available exclusively to Marion residents, Trenary suggested.

When the coronavirus closed the library in mid-March, the library boosted its public Wi-Fi into the library parking lot. Trenary said she sees between 30 to 40 people daily from her office window who are accessing Wi-Fi.

Trenary said the demand for Wi-Fi is coming more from older adults than students.

City council member Rene Gadelha said that schools are responsible for the Wi-Fi needs of students, and if the city were to pursue public Wi-Fi, there would have to be more demand for it.

City council member Colette Atkins, the dean of business and information technology at Kirkwood Community College, said college students also will need Wi-Fi access this fall.

City council member Will Brandt said he would be in favor of exploring community Wi-Fi.

Cedar Rapids offers free public Wi-Fi in its downtown.

Marion initially had citywide Wi-Fi as part of its Imagine 8 project, a series of improvements that began in 2009 to enhance quality of life in Marion.

At that time, Pluckhahn said, the city had problems with residents downloading inappropriate content such as music protected by copyright.

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With more advanced technology, he said, the city should be able to avoid this if it implements communitywide Wi-Fi in the future, he said.

Comments: (319) 398-8411; grace.king@thegazette.com

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