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Amherst gives big boost to downtown wireless network

Pleasant street, Amherst
JOSH KUCKENS

Pleasant street, Amherst JOSH KUCKENS Purchase photo reprints »

Amherst this week is unveiling what is possibly the most comprehensive outdoor Wi-Fi anywhere in Massachusetts. It will extend a mile throughout the downtown,

After several months of work and testing, including building custom access points that deliver the wireless signals, a $50,000 upgrade to the municipal Wi-Fi system is complete and going live.

“We definitely have the fastest and largest outdoor Wi-Fi network in the state,” said Information Technology Director Kristopher Pacunas.

The new system, which replaces aging equipment that was part of a smaller municipal Wi-Fi system, will be a boon to those who live, work and shop in downtown Amherst, said Pacunas, who anticipates as many as 2,000 discrete people will use the system daily.

“We’ve seen data in the short time we’ve had this (that) people will come to downtown areas with free Wi-Fi,” Pacunas said.

The 30 custom access points, or routers, have been going up on utility poles and municipal buildings since summer. These access points communicate with each other in what is known as a mesh configuration.

Coupled with repeaters that make the Wi-Fi system more reliable and extend the wireless signal, these access points then connect clients to the Internet through centralized controllers, Pacunas said.

By using components provided by eight companies and creating custom access points, Pacunas said, the town is getting a better and less expensive end product.

He said the town will be spending $50,000 on the project, which was originally expected to cost $75,000.

“We ended up with performance we couldn’t even believe,” Pacunas said.

With double the number of Wi-Fi emitters, the Wi-Fi network goes farther than before, reaching Kendrick Park at the northern edge of downtown, and the back of the Clark House on Lessey Street.

The original mesh network was built at a cost of $200,000 five years ago and constructed through a grant and collaboration with the University of Massachusetts, the National Science Foundation and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Pacunas said the upgraded system will be far more dependable than the current one and much faster, as well, and be better suited for use with handheld devices and tablets.

He is already seeing the popularity. Though not officially launched until the new year, aspects have been in place for weeks, during which 10,446 discrete users have tried out the new system, he said.

Pacunas points to the Glazed Doughnut Shop at the Amherst Carriage Shops as a beneficiary of the upgrades.

Keren Rhodes, owner of the doughnut shop, said the Wi-Fi system will be used to handle wireless transactions at the store and should encourage patrons to stick around for longer periods of time.

Alex Krogh-Grabbe, director of the Amherst Business Improvement District, said he sees the benefits of the system.

“The new downtown Wi-Fi put downtown Amherst and its business district way ahead of most communities in terms of attracting people to downtown through technology,” Krogh-Grabbe said.

Pacunas said as an outdoor network, the system doesn’t always work as well inside buildings in downtown, but for many who live downtown, such as residents of Ann Whalen Apartments and Clark House, this can still serve as their wireless network.

The upgraded Wi-Fi network, he said, is designed to be accessible for most residents.

Businesses also aren’t obligated to make the investment in their own wireless networks, though for coffee shops and others that depend on customers coming in with laptops, they may still choose to do so, Pacunas said.

Pacunas said the team that put together the improved system included Sean Hannan, the assistant IT director, and Fred Hartwell, the town electrician, who used a town bucket truck to attach the access points to utility poles.

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