First in Pa.: Free citywide public wi-fi coming to Lancaster

     Lancaster Mayor Rick Gray announces free public and discounted private Internet access expected by the end of this year. Gray says the city started working on this initiative in 2006. (Emily Previty/WITF)

    Lancaster Mayor Rick Gray announces free public and discounted private Internet access expected by the end of this year. Gray says the city started working on this initiative in 2006. (Emily Previty/WITF)

     Citywide web access is rare nationally, and Lancaster would be the first municipality in Pennsylvania to offer it.

    Lancaster officials expect have free public wi-fi and optional discounted rates for private users by the end of 2015.

    The project will cost the city $500,000, which pays for installing fiber optic cable.

    Lancaster Public Works Director Charlotte Katzenmoyer says the forthcoming system’s reliance on cable could prove key to avoiding the fates of other cities – including Philadelphia and Seattle – that have tried and failed to launch wide-scale web services.

    “Many other cities have relied on wireless services. So that has speed restrictions, you drop the signal,” she says.

    Lancaster officials say they’ll make back their investment quickly, through at least $250,000 a year from a switch to automated water meter reading enabled by the new system, and consolidating existing contracts.

    They expect operations like traffic signaling, and police data sharing to improve as well.

    But Mayor Rick Gray says the motivation goes beyond the government’s budget and core functions.

     “You go into any coffee bar in the city of Lancaster, everybody has an iPad, has a computer, has an iPhone – they’re all on it. And those are the people we want to attract: young people, entrepreneurial people,” Gray says.

    Gray says the system will launch internally first, then in public parks and schools.

    Residents also will be able to get discounted home Internet service in about two-thirds of the city, to start.

    Katzenmoyer says that’s why the city went with Reading-based MAW Communications instead of a big corporation.

     “Larger companies like that, they need to sell their Internet service to be basically the same all across the country,” she says. “That was the request to them: will you offer low-cost internet services to businesses and residents? And their answer was no.”

    Pennsylvania’s Act 183 law requires municipalities to offer these types of projects to other utility providers before moving ahead.  Verizon, the designated operator with first-refusal rights, formally passed on the opportunity last week, according to Gray’s chief of staff Pat Brogan.

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