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Santa Fe Plaza is now connected

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

You can now access the internet from a park bench on the Plaza.

Since the beginning of the year, Santa Fe city government has been providing free Wi-Fi service in the heart of the city.

“I think it’s the kind of thing cities ought to be making available,” said Randy Randall, executive director of Tourism Santa Fe. “Hopefully, it will be come a permanent addition to what we offer residents and visitors on the Plaza.”

Randall described what’s currently in place as a pilot program.

“It’s a pilot because, if it works out well on the Plaza, it can be pushed out to areas beyond the Plaza area,” he said. “If you go as far down as the Lensic (Performing Arts Center), you could lose connectivity.”

All you have to do is click. Santa Fe residents and visitors can now access free Wi-Fi service on the city’s historic downtown Plaza. (T.S. Last/Albuquerque Journal)

So far, two Wi-Fi antennas have been installed atop buildings on the Plaza, with two more planned, pending permission from property owners and modification of an agreement with PNM, which owns the light poles in the Plaza area.

Users can now access Wi-Fi at certain locations in the downtown area – mostly hotels, but also some coffee shops and the main library on Washington Avenue – as well as hotels and businesses in other parts of the city. But they usually require users to be patrons who have to sign in with an access code. Now, anyone in the vicinity of the Plaza can just tap into the Wi-Fi network marked “SF Plaza Free Wifi.”

An online search shows that many cities in America offer free Wi-Fi to some sections of their towns, often at public libraries. But few large cities provide access in outdoor areas like Santa Fe’s Plaza, a National Historic Landmark which dates from the 1600s.

In an effort to curb abuse, users in Santa Fe are limited to connection speeds of 10 megabytes per second.

Randall said each Wi-Fi antenna – actually radios that send and receive signals – can handle up to 250 users. So, about 500 people can now access the network at one time. When all four antennas are in place, as many as 1,000 people could access the internet, which could come in handy for events like the city’s New Year’s celebration or Fiesta if that many people were streaming video of the event.

While free and without restriction, Randall said the city may require users to provide an email address before logging in. The address users provide would not be sold or distributed to anyone else, but would be used strictly for survey purposes, Randall said.

One of the first questions they may be asked is whether they are a visitor or a resident of the city.

“And once they sign in, they won’t have to sign in again. It will be there the next time they want to use it,” he said.

Randall said the idea to bring free Wi-Fi to the downtown area came at the suggestion of Stephen Resnick, who co-chairs the Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce’s Economic Development Committee.

Randall said the Wi-Fi around the Plaza would only moderately affect cellphone service downtown, which has been a problem in the past. In December 2017, then-Mayor Javier Gonzales declared an emergency “due to the lapse of cellular networks and telecommunications capabilities” that he said had become a public safety concern. Temporary cellphone towers were installed throughout the city in an effort to alleviate the problem.

There is one issue that still needs to be worked out, Randall said. All the streetlight poles around the Plaza are dedicated to providing light, not to act as a power source for the equipment that makes Wi-Fi possible, he said. So city officials will meet with PNM representatives next week to try to work out an agreement in which at least one pole could be metered separately from the others to account for powering the Wi-Fi system.

“We can’t use the power from that pole for anything else,” Randall said, adding that the antennas require only enough power to light a 60 watt light bulb. “But with the (state Public Regulation Commission) regulations, we can’t use even that much if it’s not separately metered.”

Randall said funding for the project is through an existing contract the city has with Santa Fe’s Cyber Mesa Telecom. The tourism department is paying the $750 monthly cost for the broadband access.

Providing Wi-Fi service on the Plaza is just one of many little things that make a tourist’s visit to the city more enjoyable, Randall said.

“We need to constantly be looking for ways that we can enhance a visitor’s experience in Santa Fe, and this will be one of them,” he said, adding that it is one of many “little things” that add up and enhance Santa Fe’s reputation a popular vacation spot.

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