Georgia Highways' Online Connection

By Eric Griffith

April 13, 2007

The Peach State hopes to familiarize visitors with the state "brand," using Wi-Fi as a tool in the tourism arsenal.

The State of Georgia has undertaken an ambitious plan to bring free Wi-Fi to all of its Visitor Information Centers (VIC) no later than the first week of May. Funded by the Georgia Department of Economic Development (GDEcD, pronounced "gee-dee-cee-dee"), the project would bring broadband wireless to 11 VICs statewide. What makes the deployment particularly challenging is the tight timeframe—six months from conception to completion—as well as the challenges presented by the terrain, and the desire for seamless authentication for members of Georgia.org at all locations.

Spunlogic, an Atlanta-based "interactive marketing and technology agency," was chosen to oversee the project, which was the brainchild of the GDEcD's division of tourism.

"The GDEcD is responsible for Georgia's tourism, international and local business, film, and music; Spunlogic is the interactive agency of record for the GDEcD," says vice president of strategy Raj Choudhury. "Spunlogic provides tools, functioning and marketing initiatives in those areas."

Almost all of the 11 VICs scheduled to receive free Wi-Fi are located in somewhat rural areas along the state's highway system. In most cases, there was no incumbent broadband provider within affordable reach of the structures, so Spunlogic decided to look beyond fiber or cable for its bandwidth; instead, it looked to the sky.

"Trying to get broadband connections out there has been a challenge, so we're using satellite providers to get the broadband there," says Choudhury. "OneRing Networks shares office space with us; they've been a long-term partner of ours. We were going to pull in T1s or DSLs, but it was more of a hassle to get certain ones configured. One Ring found a satellite solution around a price point that was not that different."

Each VIC will contain one public computer with free Wi-Fi access, as well as a hotspot that can be accessed by anyone stopping by with their Wi-Fi-enabled device. When a user logs in, they land on a "Georgia Wi-Fi" page, which is part of Georgia.org, the state's main tourism site. From there, users either create a profile or log in if they already have one. Once users are authenticated, they can explore Georgia.org or they can move on to whatever business they want to conduct via the Web. If they visit another VIC later that day—or month or year—their user ID and password should still be valid.

"The crux is that everything comes from the hotspot back to our data centers," says Choudhury. "We authenticate users, then they can browse wherever they choose to."

No special precautions have been taken in terms of security. "There is authentication," says Choudhury. "As soon as they connect to it, they have to be authenticated against our database. We do know who they are and when they are coming in, but we're not tracking what they're doing. Our counsel advised us not to restrict anything for users; by restricting, we take on liability."

As for the hardware, "One Ring took existing hardware and rewrote how the hardware was interpreting the data," says Choudhury. "Basically, the signal comes through and gets proxied back to One Ring's data center. From there, we are using a radio server to bring it back into the GDEcD servers and proxy through that. The devices on site are just running as DHCP, not even much of a router."

This deployment is the first of its kind for Spunlogic. Two years ago, the State of Michigan launched a similar project at ten visitor centers and state parks, but Choudhury says that his company did not look to that project as an example.

"We didn't model [our roll-out] after Michigan," says Choudhury. "We were given little time to pull it off; we didn't model off anyone. We came up with a solution up front without looking at anyone else."

The driving principle of the project seems to be the "re-branding" of the Peach State.

Georgia "Georgia had a major re-branding in November of 2005," says Choudhury. "The Georgia logo, the whole brand experience, changed quite a bit. As part of this, a lot of the VICs have been upgraded as far as their look and feel. We definitely want to provide Wi-Fi hotspots. We want to engage the users and visitors with the Georgia brand. We want to provide some level of information without being too intrusive, so they feel welcomed into the state. As seamlessly as we could, we kept the brand section apparent through the whole registration process."

Despite the fact that the project is guided by a desire to make visitors more familiar with what Chodhury calls the Georgia "brand," it may be some time before travelers on Georgia's highways actually become aware of any difference. While there will be signage inside the VICs indicating the presence of a Wi-Fi hotspot, road signs are another matter altogether.

"The problem with working with government agencies," says Choudhury, "is that one is responsible for one thing and one is responsible for another. Roadway signs are outside of the GDEcD; it's another department. We're trying to coordinate with the other department, but to be honest, roll-out of the hotspots is our priority."

While the full roll-out won't be complete at the VICs until the first week in May, if you're planning a trip to Georgia, you can already find free Wi-Fi at the Centennial Olympic Park Visitor Center in Atlanta—it went live in January—and at the Athens Welcome Center in the north end of historic downtown Athens.



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