Research Recall: North Carolina Public Wi-Fi Networks

Reports by the N.C. Broadband Office helps to understand which local governments offer downtown Wi-Fi and aid the building of downtown networks.

Since the report was released a number of years ago, the importance and value of downtown Wi-Fi for citizens, small businesses and visitors has only grown. N.C. local governments have learned this, and many more have begun offering it as a service to their citizens, visitors, and small businesses.

However, since this report was released, the data might have changed. When the initial report was released, downtown Wi-Fi was novel and not a widespread benefit offered by local governments in N.C. Today, citizens expect it to be available, and areas that do not offer it may be at a disadvantage in attracting patrons, tourists and small businesses to their downtowns. Also, as demand for the service increases, so does the need for increased capacity.

Because of this report, we have been able to better understand which local governments are offering downtown Wi-Fi, which has allowed us to provide better support to them and other local governments as they build their downtown networks.

North Carolina Public Wi-Fi Networks

Last fall, NC Broadband, a division of the North Carolina Department of Commerce, conducted a statewide survey to gather more information about local public Wi-Fi networks. The survey was disseminated over the North Carolina Local Government Information Systems Administration listserv and was advertised during the fall NCLGISA conference, which brings together local government information technology professionals from across the state.


Of the 50 respondents who started the survey, 40 have a public Wi-Fi network in their community. Most networks serve the area in and around government facilities, but some also include the downtown and nearby parks or other indoor facilities.

The speeds offered by the networks vary, with download speeds mostly falling between 768 Mbps and 10 Mbps and upload speeds between 768 Mbps and 3 Mbps.


The survey also found that the majority of networks are for the use of local residents and community visitors, which may serve as a tourism tool. Some respondents also cited library patrons and school children as network users.


Aside from the general location, speeds and audience of each network, the respondents listed network attributes that are unique to the community’s needs and budget, so the details of each project can be found in the attached chart. Due to the number of survey questions, the communities are repeated into four sets within the chart.


Wi-Fi Network Examples


Beaufort County


Beaufort County Community College is the only grant-funded Wi-Fi network in the survey responses. Their funds came from the North Carolina Advanced Manufacturing Alliance for hardware and the N.C. Community College System's funds for communications and support. The college’s network covers about four square miles, which encompasses 12 buildings and all parking lots on campus. This network has also the fastest speeds reported, with between 100 mbps and 1 gbps download and upload speeds. The college uses MERU for access points and backhaul radios, and works on a mesh topology. The college manages the network in-house; CenturyLink and MCNC provide the Internet service, depending on whether the network is being accessed by a student or the public.


City of Greensboro


The City of Greensboro's Wi-Fi network covers about one square mile in the downtown area. The network is free for use by community visitors and anyone attending council meetings, the library or downtown park. The network is also used for the downtown surveillance cameras. The city uses Cisco equipment and delivers service via a single access point and mesh topology. The city manages the network; Time Warner Cable provides the Internet service via the government network. A lesson learned from the city regarding public Wi-Fi networks is that if the community does not manage the network, it can start consuming available bandwidth for internal employee use. The city also recommends disabling peer-topeer sharing and other bandwidth consuming applications. Based on these lessons learned, if the city were to set up the network now, they would use a system with two separate Internet connections.


Click here to read the rest of the report and data.