The ABCs of Free Public Wi-Fi: LA Parks — Technology Innovators

May 1, 2016, Feature, by Mark Saferstein

For parks, the key is to offer Wi-Fi to visitors in well-defined, high-traffic locations, such as this section of California's famous Venice Beach.This is awesome! I can sit outside in the park and get my work done while watching the kids play. It’s so much better than being stuck at home in front of my computer or going to a fast food restaurant to get free Wi-Fi.

— Recently overheard at Echo Lake Park in downtown L.A.

The city of Los Angeles, along with a growing number of local, state and federal agencies, has committed to bring free Wi-Fi to public spaces. The pilot program in Los Angeles has already been embraced by the public, with iconic locations such as Venice Beach and Griffith Observatory now offering this free service. Wi-Fi is no longer considered an amenity, but rather a public utility, like electricity and running water. If you don’t believe it, just ask any millennial or the parent of a young child. 

What’s Needed?

In order to offer Wi-Fi to your visitors, there are two primary needs: high-speed broadband (i.e., an internet connection) and constant electricity to power the system. With this in mind, there are several questions that invariably arise: 

  • Where should I place Wi-Fi? The best locations are where there’s a high concentration of pedestrian traffic and where people are likely to stay for a while, such as a visitor center, beach, playground, day-use or concession area. 
  • What’s the range of Wi-Fi? Carrier-grade, commercial Wi-Fi has a limited range, typically no more than several hundred feet. However, the range can be extended significantly by adding multiple transmitters (commonly known as access points or APs), linked together to form a continuous “mesh” network. 
  • Why do we need Wi-Fi if there’s cell coverage? Simple, Wi-Fi is free and cellular data plans are expensive. Recent research shows that as many as 28 percent of customers pay overages for exceeding their data plans. Also, approximately 90 percent of tablets are Wi-Fi-only, where cellular isn’t an option.  
  • My park is off the grid and the local Internet Service Provider (ISP) says there’s no wired internet connection available. Is there still a solution? Yes! There are multiple options to bring in a signal, both wired and wireless. Each has pros and cons. Wired solutions, if available, typically offer lower monthly cost, higher speeds (measured in megabites per second or Mbs) and no data caps. However, there are lots of places where it’s prohibitively expensive — and sometimes impossible — to install a cable or fiber line, or where it’ll just take far too long. Wireless solutions include cellular, microwave and satellite. Cellular-based Wi-Fi is too slow and expensive for a public system. Microwave systems start with a wired internet connection and then beam it long distances using multiple point-to-point antennas. This can work for remote locations, as long as there’s direct line of sight, but the cost of the service is quite expensive. In locations where this isn’t an option, satellite increasingly offers a great solution. Within a year’s time, both ViaSat and Hughes are launching new satellites that will cover all of North America. While satellite-fed Wi-Fi has a data cap, and therefore higher monthly costs, these data costs are expected to drop significantly with the new generation of satellites. Also, the speed of satellite internet is projected to be more than six times faster (i.e. far greater capacity) than the current satellites. One of the major advantages of satellite is that you can be up and running in as little as a week! 
  • Are Wi-Fi systems private, secure and family-friendly? Yes, commercial systems are typically anonymous, the data is encrypted and you can block objectionable content. 

The city of Los Angeles partnered with American Park Network to install free public Wi-Fi in multiple locations, including the famed Venice Beach and Griffith Observatory. The primary goals are to provide enhanced visitor services, increase visitation and ultimately get people to spend more time outside. In addition, the Los Angeles Recreation and Parks Department sought to leverage many of the following benefits:  

  • Internet access for underserved communities
  • Highly accurate traffic monitoring
  • A digital portal for education — visitors can download information about the park, such as mobile apps
  • Save money on printing — digital content, such as trail maps, schedules and education materials, pose significant cost savings 
  • An operational tool to monitor visitation patterns (e.g., schedule security, maintenance, staffing based on timing of peak visitation, etc.) 
  • Real-time visitation information to help with budgeting and appropriations
  • Ability to target messaging to park visitors to encourage repeat visitation, promote park usage/event attendance, etc. 
  • Potential to generate additional revenue or support operating costs through public/private partnerships

Millions of Angelinos have had the opportunity to use this new service, which is very popular. An average of more than 20 percent of devices connect to the system when in the Wi-Fi hotspots for five minutes or more. At one park with limited cell coverage, the connection rate is as high as 36 percent! 

One of the Most Requested Services

In Los Angeles, all equipment, installation and ongoing maintenance has been made possible through a public/private partnership. Michael A. Shull, general manager, Department of Recreation and Parks, was instrumental in making this program come to life. “It’s been very rewarding to collaborate with American Park Network with support from Toyota to bring free Oh, Ranger! Wi-Fi™ to park visitors,” says Shull. “We look forward to expanding Wi-Fi services throughout our entire park system. Bringing connectivity to parks enhances community offerings and gives everyone an incentive to spend more time outdoors.” 

New York State has a similar public Wi-Fi initiative, bringing free connectivity to iconic spots like Niagara Falls and Jones Beach. State Park Commissioner Rose Harvey echoes Shull’s sentiment, adding that free Wi-Fi is a way to appeal to younger constituents, who often make their choices based on their ability to connect. “Whether opting to use Wi-Fi to share real-time photos of friends and family or to access apps and maps, having this technology is another way to draw people in to spend their precious leisure time at our parks,” says Harvey.

“In Arizona, connectivity is one of the most requested services,” says Sue Black, director of Arizona State Parks. “The park community needs to take a leadership role and set the standard for the public.” Arizona is currently working with concession partner Aramark to install free public Wi-Fi in popular destinations like Kartchner Caverns and Patagonia Lake State Park, with plans to expand the service throughout the entire system. 

Ultimately, the key for parks isn’t to have Wi-Fi everywhere, but rather to offer visitors the option to connect in well-defined, high-traffic locations. That option can make all the difference in getting people to show up and share their experiences. In many respects, it’s similar to offering showers at campgrounds. There was a time when a hot shower at a campground was a luxury. Today, visitors consider it a necessity but would likely trade a hot shower for a reliable internet connection any time. 

Mark Saferstein is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief at American Park Network