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Downtown Amherst upgrades Wi-Fi system

Downtown Amherst just got a whole lot faster.

On Jan. 2, Amherst’s Information Technology Department announced the expansion of the town’s open Wi-Fi network, increasing the former number of access points from 14 to 35.

Billed as the “largest and fastest open municipal Wi-Fi network in Massachusetts,” the expansion makes the Internet accessible in downtown Amherst from Kendrick Park to beyond Route 9.

At a cost of $50,000, the new system provides speeds of 50 megabits per second and will continue to be free to use in the downtown area.

Amherst’s IT Director Kristopher Pacunas described the expansion as an important overhaul of the system that had been in place since 2007.

“Basically, we’ve replaced all the old stuff with brand new stuff,” Pacunas said. “It is much faster, more reliable, reaches farther, all those things.”

The goal of the new system is to attract more commercial traffic to town. While the system is an upgrade for the town as a whole, there is a specific focus on working individuals who travel to the shops in town and will be able to stay connected without fear of slow speeds or unreliable connectivity.

Tony Maroulis, the executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, believes the new system will prove its value by doing just as it was set out to do.

“With the number of tech entrepreneurs that we have here working in our cafes, and there are a lot, it certainly makes working remotely much easier for them,” Maroulis said. “This is a really smart economic development on the part of the town.”

In just its first two weeks in use, 20,000 unique devices had connected to the network, according to Pacunas.

“People visiting the downtown Amherst area can just about turn off their data plan and not incur any data usage charges,” Pacunas said. “As a consequence, more people will not only come to downtown Amherst, but they will stay longer.”

Pacunas believes that the upgraded Wi-Fi network could be an attraction to businesses that might decide to locate in the Amherst area. Because the system will provide an increased amount of traffic in commercial areas and easily accessible Internet access, he said, it could be a valuable factor to businesses.

Maroulis, however, sees the upgrade as more of a benefit to the individual traffic, rather than a business attraction.

“I don’t see it that way,” Maroulis said. “I see it more as keeping people here longer, keeping them within our shops and spending.

“It will be one of those things that will signal to businesses that Amherst is business friendly,” he added.

Niels la Cour, a senior campus planner at the University of Massachusetts, believes that the upgrade in Wi-Fi is a step in the right direction for the town.

“I think this is a really important piece,” la Cour said. “This is part of the kind of amenities that those students that come to take part in higher education here expect and demand.”

On the UMass campus Wi-Fi is available in every building, but unlike the upgraded system in the downtown area, it is not an outdoors system. Having just completed the overall master plan for the campus going forward, la Cour thinks that a campus-wide system is something that will be looked at in the future by the Office of Information Technologies.

Jeffrey Okerman can be reached at jokerman@student.umass.edu.

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