“Innovation Districts” and “Innovation Corridors” have been popping up in recent years in an effort for cities to grow their technology and startup ecosystems. Cities and entrepreneurs often find value in the concentration of assets in a single location; it’s easier for business owners to mix and mingle, share ideas and access capital and technical resources.
Indeed, Innovation Districts in cities like Boston and San Diego have begun to lure many suburban high-tech and R&D companies back to the urban core—some through incentives, others through strategic investments in infrastructure.
A key piece of infrastructure is free, high-speed Wi-Fi.
New York City has committed to bringing free Internet to residents across all five boroughs by transforming obsolete phone booths into wireless hotspots. Those within 150 feet of one of these hotspots should be able to get a gigabyte per second of service, creating new opportunities to bridge NYC’s digital divide. Other cities, like Seattle, have investigated bringing municipal broadband to their communities as a way of strengthening their tech economy, only to later determine that the infrastructure was too costly.
Just last month, Springfield, MA announced it, too, would be bringing free municipal Wi-Fi to its downtown as a way to support startup growth. Yet where Springfield differentiates itself from its predecessors is that the city is not solely focused on tech-oriented business. They also see this as an opportunity to grow entrepreneurship more broadly.
“There are just so many things you can’t do if you don’t have Wi-Fi,” said Delcie Bean, founder of Paragus Strategic IT and mastermind behind Tech Foundry, an education and training program tailored to the tech industry. “Even food trucks use Wi-Fi these days to process credit cards.”
An advantage for Springfield is that much of the underground infrastructure already exists. Tapping into this excess capacity of existing fibers allows the city to provide an important amenity at relatively low cost, with speed that “shouldn’t be a problem,” according to a city official.
Existing small businesses are likely to benefit, too. They will no longer have to invest in the infrastructure on their own to provide customers with the Wi-Fi connectivity they’ve grown so accustomed to (a cost savings for the business), and more people will be drawn downtown to shop, dine, share ideas and socialize. Springfield is specifically looking to boost wireless connectivity in the public parks in order to add to the collaborative environment the community is trying to foster as a means of boosting entrepreneurship rates and promote revitalization.
Springfield is New England’s fourth largest city and the largest in Western New England. Springfield continues to struggle with persistent poverty, with nearly 30 percent of its population falling below the poverty line, almost three times the statewide average.
As Springfield’s efforts move forward, Chattanooga, Tennessee provides a model. Chattanooga, like Springfield, is a former factory town that struggled to attract investment for decades.
Years before anyone had even heard of the term “Google Fiber,” Chattanooga rolled out 1 gigabyte per second (Gbps) service to more than 150,000 homes and businesses in a 600-square-mile area using a fiber-optic cable network. Speeds that fast are nearly 50 times faster than the U.S. average. Since, Chattanooga has experienced at least $2 billion in follow-on investment from the private sector. Despite the recession, Chattanooga landed some big economic wins, including turbine maker Alstom, Volkswagen’s $1 billion North American manufacturing plant and a number of distribution and fulfillment centers opened by Amazon and others.
Even a fraction of the investment that has found its way to Chattanooga would provide a tremendous boost for Springfield. Wireless connectivity as a tool for entrepreneurship and business growth in companies of all sizes may prove to be a boon for the city’s long-term economic revitalization.