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With ‘smart city' initiative, Newport envisions Wi-Fi access for everyone, other tech improvements

Planners find creative way to finance project
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Posted at 8:00 AM, Oct 21, 2016
and last updated 2016-10-21 08:00:07-04

NEWPORT, Ky. -- Well, it’s certainly on its way.

Last year, Cincinnati Bell began putting up a Wi-Fi network with roughly 30 access points, which is expected to be complete in early January.

And on Dec. 1, a local company plans to start deploying a series of 30 interactive kiosks around the city, a process that will take about a year, but which will create 30 more Wi-Fi access points.

One goal of all this is to get everyone in Newport access to Wi-Fi, City Manager Tom Fromme said.

“You have to stay current on technology, or else you’re going to be left behind,” he said. “The city is just trying to keep up.”

It’s not the first time the city has tried to get into the Wi-Fi game, and Newport’s not the first Northern Kentucky city to try to become a smart city (more on that later).

But this time, the organizers seem to have solved the issue of financing for the project, the Achilles’ heel of previous projects.

It’s being led by Jon Salisbury, the chief technology officer and co-founder of Nexigen, a Newport-based technology and cloud-solutions provider. Nexigen created smartLINK, a stand-alone company dedicated in part to creating smart communities.

Nexigen got involved, Salisbury said, because of a problem at Newport High School, where some students didn’t have the internet access needed to do their homework. Nexigen learned of the problem because one of its new employees is the son of Kelly Middleton, superintendent of Newport Independent Schools.

Nexigen came up with a solution -- to deploy a meshed Wi-Fi network across the city -- but quickly realized it would fail because of the hefty capital expenditure and operating costs, Salisbury said.

Then the company asked Cincinnati Bell for a fiber-optic solution, he said, but that came with a price tag of about $1 million. To make it happen, Salisbury said he rounded up 200 businesses that agreed to pre-buy discounted internet services for a certain amount of time, thus removing the risk from Cincinnati Bell.

The company then realized it could add even more Wi-Fi access points by creating interactive kiosks, which it could pay for by making them with large monitors that advertisers could pay to run commercials on, Salisbury said.

The kiosks will have touch screens that pedestrians can use to browse the internet, get bus schedules, make emergency phone calls and contact City Hall. They’ll also have high-speed phone chargers, Salisbury said, and they’ll be designed to withstand a blow from a baseball bat.

SmartLINK plans to pay the city $450 to $900 per month per kiosk, Salisbury said, which the city could then use to order more smart city initiatives such as using them to triangulate and find where gunshots have come from.

“Where it goes in the future … technology is changing as we speak. Who knows what else can come from this,” Fromme said.

SmartLINK has borrowed the money to create and install the kiosks, which Salisbury expected to amount to about $1 million.

The key to keeping the project going will be to find advertisers, Salisbury said, and he’s already seen a lot of interest from Nexigen’s local clients.

“When the product is out there, and people see how cool it is, I don’t think it will be much of an issue to attract advertisers,” he said.

One reason attempts to build smart cities fail is because of lack of funding, he said.

“A lot of cities will deploy the technology … but end up with a system that’s hard to manage,” he said.

Newport tried something similar once before, about 10 years ago, Fromme said. The project involved putting Wi-Fi transmitters on the Purple People Bridge and a block from City Hall, he said.

But the transmitters had limited range and were costly -- about $5,000 a year for just one device, he said, so the city abandoned the project after a few years.

About the same time Newport was involved in that project, the city of Dayton, Kentucky, was talking about a similar project in connection with the development of its riverfront.

The idea was to make Dayton into the nation’s first ubiquitous city, in which all its information systems would be interconnected.

It was part of a huge community that a developer named Terry Chan wanted to create along the length of Dayton’s riverfront, said Ken Rankle, who was mayor at the time.

“They were going to make sure the walkway on the floodwall would be Wi-Fi compatible, with little kiosks,” he said. “It would have been a fantastic idea.”

But then the Great Recession came, and Chan never could get funding for the project, Rankle said.

The ubiquitous city idea was accurate to a degree, Salisbury said, but it was eight or 10 years too early.

At the time, wireless wasn’t as pervasive, there weren’t as many vendors as there are now and prices were too high, he said.

Dayton will be watching the Newport project with great interest, Dayton City Administrator Michael Giffen said.

“It’s obviously the future of cities,” he said. “It’s only a matter of time before all cities are wired that way.”