Free public Wi-Fi

CST, Scott County, LMI and churches make connection

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People teaming up to help others is the silver lining of the COVID-19 virus that has swept the country, and North Scott residents and businesses have stepped up to the plate to do their part.

A result of one such partnership is that free Wi-Fi access is now available in the parking lots of the Scott County Library and Faith Lutheran Church in Eldridge, as well as St. Ann’s Catholic Church in rural Long Grove.

Central Scott Telephone took the lead on the projects, with help from the library, Scott County’s IT department, and Lighting Maintenance, Inc. (LMI), a local Eldridge business.

The impetus for the extended coverage was a phone call between CST general manager, Donn Wilmott, and the county’s IT department.

A couple of weeks ago, county officials had contacted CST about upping the county’s internet capacity in anticipation of having employees have to work from home.

That was an easy fix, but in the course of the conversation, Wilmott wondered about extending free Wi-Fi into the parking lot of the library in Eldridge.

“I asked if the county had an AP (Access Point) device to use at the library, and if so, I could up their Internet bandwidth and extend the free Wi-Fi that we currently offered inside the building, into the parking lot,” said Wilmott. “I thought about it because the FCC (Federal Communication Commission) had just come out with a new program called ‘Keeping Americans Connected’ during the pandemic.”

The program is an initiative of FCC chairman Ajit Pai, who asked telecom providers across the country to offer free Wi-Fi hotspots. CST signed up immediately, and the county, after being approached by Wilmott, was totally on board. 

“We said, ‘We can do that,’” said Matt Hirst, the county’s director of Information Technology. “We had a wireless AP that we had originally deployed at the parks, and decided we could deploy it in the front foyer of the library to meet the need for Internet in the parking lot.”

The plan was good in theory, but not much in practicality.

“I stopped in the parking lot after work on Friday (March 21) to check it out,” said Wilmott, “and the reception was horrible. I called up Sam (Samara) with the county’s IT department, and told him something wasn’t working right.”

Long story short, the library’s tinted windows were keeping the signal from carrying to the parking lot.

The next morning, Wilmott, Samara and CST employee Chris Garrison met at the library to try and solve the problem. In the meantime, Wilmott had been talking to North Scott School Board member Molly Bergfeld about a different issue, and mentioned to her what was happening. She was also on site Saturday morning.

Bergfeld’s presence was fortunate, as she had a hand in bringing LMI to the party.

It was determined that the equipment needed to be mounted on the library’s roof, and that 70-pound sand bags were needed to stabilize it.

Bergfeld called her husband, Cory, who put her in contact with LMI owner Tom Circello. Circello contacted one of his employees, Darren Twigg, who showed up with the company’s lift truck.

Wilmott, Samara and Garrison met at 10 a.m., and by 2:30 p.m. the signal was up and running, and even extended to the parking lot of First Central State Bank.

“We’re now providing pretty good coverage out there at this point,” Hirst said last week. “I think CST is providing about 35 megs per second capabilities out there, which is up from about 10 megabit per second. It was absolutely a team effort.

“We couldn’t have done it with Donn at CST and the folks at LMI, and we also had involvement from Tricia Kane (Scott County librarian) and a couple members of the library board.

“It’s relationships that made this all possible,” Hirst continued, “and I think it’s an example of how we can work together and overcome some of the obstacles that we’re facing right now. It’s refreshing to see that community spirit and teamwork in action.”

Churches get involved

However, Wilmott and Samara were just getting started. They are both members of St. Ann’s, and Samara had previously installed the infrastructure for the church to have Wi-Fi in its parking lot.

Wilmott contacted Monsignor Drake Shafar, and received permission to utilize it as a free Wi-Fi spot, and with Shafar’s blessing, Wilmott then cranked up the bandwidth there as well.

Wilmott also contacted Pastor Carrie LaPlante at Faith Lutheran.

“They didn’t have the dedicated hardware that goes into the parking lot,” he said, “but their Wi-Fi did extend into the parking lot, and we cranked up the bandwidth there as well.”

Wilmott also said that CST is willing to do the same in other places.

“Anywhere there is some kind of infrastructure that extends into a public parking lot-type thing, we’re willing to work with that entity or company to offer public Wi-Fi during this time,” he said. “We had existing business relationships with both churches, and it’s just a willingness to crank up the speed and make it available for public Wi-Fi at no cost increase.

“It’s been really neat to see the community come together like this.”

Wilmott has also had preliminary discussions with North Scott Supt. Joe Stutting about doing the same thing at Virgil Grissom Elementary in Princeton and John Glenn Elementary in Donahue.

“They don’t have the infrastructure to do it today, but they wouldn’t even need the phone company to help out, because they have so much bandwidth sitting there for the kids that’s not being used,” said Wilmott.

“They could redirect it to the parking lot. I have a feeling that if school gets delayed past April 10, they probably will step up and do that.”

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