Athens, Tennessee, gets grant help for free downtown Wi-Fi

Athens, Tennessee, gets grant help for free downtown Wi-Fi

April 21st, 2019 by Ben Benton in Local Regional News

Downtown Athens, Tenn., is seen in this May 2012 file photo.

Photo by Staff File Photo /Times Free Press.

Athens, Tennessee, is getting free public Wi-Fi in its downtown area thanks to an Appalachian Regional Commission grant and local matching funds.

The $37,500 grant will be combined with the same amount from the city and the Athens Utilities Board for $75,000 to provide 100 megabits per second of dedicated bandwidth to residents and visitors to the 43 businesses in the downtown area, officials said in a news release.

"The downtown Wi-Fi project will bring broadband internet service at no cost to consumers for a minimum of five years," Athens city manager C. Seth Sumner said in the release. "This will directly aid in helping to grow traffic and investment into the city's historic commercial core, which is already undergoing a boom of rehabilitation over the last two years."

Downtown Athens businesses in recent years invested in expansions, hired people and in just the past year invested more than $208 million, creating 441 new jobs. The project will boost quality of life, local businesses and possibly attract more business downtown, according to the ARC.

Sumner said teamwork among the city, utility, Main Street Athens and others made the idea a reality.

People will be able to tap into the public Wi-Fi signal around the downtown square and the adjacent Market Park where festivals and events are held throughout the year, officials said. It also will provide access to education and historic infrastructure like the McMinn County Living Heritage Museum and walking tours of downtown, including the story of the historic Battle of Athens in 1946.

Athens Utilities spokesman Wayne Scarbrough said the minimum of "five years," refers to the agreed length of time downtown Wi-Fi will be provided and maintained by the utility without more funding. A plan for sustaining the service will be developed in the interim, he said.

The utility's initial role will include in-kind work to extend already-existing fiber to those areas where Wi-Fi hotspots are needed, Scarbrough said. Utility officials are still working on the design and how the work will be done, he said.

"On the front end, we may very well use our workforce to do that. We'll be a subcontractor to the city," Scarbrough said.

Moving forward, the utility will study cost-effective strategies which could include an outside contractor, he said.

He said the utility toyed with the idea two or three years ago, but a sustainable solution couldn't be found.

"It has to be a part of our telecom businesses," Scarbrough said of rules regulating public utilities. "Then this grant came along and it just segued beautifully."

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.