Wi-Fi: A Downtown's Sign of the Times

By Adam Stone

January 06, 2004

Downtown Charleston sees Wi-Fi for patrons as a driver of economic development and tourism, and hopes it might convince new business to move in.

It's become a familiar story in the past few months: Municipal authorities roll out Wi-Fi connectivity downtown in more or less limited ways, in an effort to test the technology and perhaps offer a new amenity to local businesses.

Now Charleston, S.C. has joined the crowd, but Charleston has put a new spin on the idea, with a Wi-Fi deployment conceived specifically as a driver of economic development.

It started earlier this year with a hotspot at Kool Beanz Koffee & Kreme on King Street, and has since expanded to nearly a dozen sites, including most recently Marion Square, a popular place for Frisbee throwers and weekend idlers to gather. The local chamber of commerce is footing the bill for the deployment, with backing from the mayor's office and local business leaders. Users can buy access cards at the chamber or at any of the participating Wi-Fi sites. Access costs $3 an hour, $8 a day, $15 a week or $30 a month.

The timing of the Wi-Fi effort is not random. Charleston boosters are busily trying to reposition the city in the eyes of potential visitors, and they say the availability of wireless Internet access could aid in that effort.

"Charleston is getting looked at more and more as a destination for conventions, so anything that our area can do to add to a convention experience certainly has some value," said Karen Kuchenbecker, director of marketing for the Charleston Regional Development Alliance.

At the same time, the Wi-Fi experience could help potential leisure visitors to think of Charleston as more than just golf courses, nice beaches and historical sites. "It helps us to be able to talk about things that go beyond what people would normally think about when they think about Charleston," said Kuchenbecker.

Analysts say the addition of Wi-Fi to a downtown environment could indeed generate some incremental economic benefits, especially given the relatively low cost of a Wi-Fi deployment.

"More people will come downtown to the bookstores, coffee shops and so on, if they can access Wi-Fi," said Julie Ask, a senior analyst with Jupiter Research . Wi-Fi access could generate additional sales at participating retail locations, provide additional opportunities for local advertising online, and perhaps even boost productivity at local retail establishments, "though they would have to set things up carefully so as to not have any confidential information unprotected on the public network."

In the bigger picture, the availability of Wi-Fi could help the city to court technology companies looking to relocate. Such companies might see downtown wireless as a sign that Charleston is in step with the times when it comes to technology amenities.

Despite such potential benefits, even Charleston tech players say the mere presence of Wi-Fi may not be enough to get the engines of commerce humming.

"I don't think Wi-Fi access by itself is an economic driver," said Ernest Andrade, director of the Charleston Digital Corridor.

A regional economic development partnership, the Digital Corridor promotes knowledge-based enterprise in targeted areas of the city, serving as a portal to government, infrastructure, real estate, education and professional resources. Andrade said the success of the Wi-Fi effort as an economic stimulus will depend on a number of factors, including the willingness of consumers to pay for access, and the readiness of participating retailers to promote the program. "For this to be about economics, it has to be able to stand on its own. For that to happen, private industry -- the offices, the retailers, anyone who deals with a lot of people -- will have to embrace it," he said.

There is some indication that retailers in fact are ready to put their arms around the idea. A growing roster of downtown Charleston businesses have signed on to participate in the program, including big-name enterprises such as the Embassy Suites and the Doubletree Inn & Suites, along with lesser names such as the Wholly Cow ice cream shop and three Moe's restaurants.

Ironically, while the fast-growing demand for Wi-Fi may help the Charleston wireless program to thrive, it also could weaken the city's efforts to use wireless access as an economic driver. Rather than being a fabulous extra that makes a city stand out from the crowd, some say, Wi-Fi is quickly becoming an expected amenity. "Some use the analogy of electricity or water," said Ask. These days Wi-Fi is rapidly becoming "just basic infrastructure that people expect to have."

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