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Community Wi-Fi on the way

South Boston News
Microsoft’s principal program manager for broadband, Robert Sloan, presents a check to Lake Country Satellite owner David Varner, Clarksville Mayor Kevin Allgood and Chamber executive director Sheila Cuykendal as a down payment for the Clarksville Community Wi-Fi project. / March 27, 2019

Microsoft is teaming up with Lake Country Satellite to bring free Wi-Fi service to Clarksville. The announcement was made Tuesday night by Robert Sloan, Microsoft’s principal program manager for broadband, Jeremy Satterfield, who heads Microsoft’s TechSpark initiative and David Varner, owner of Lake Country Satellite, during the regular meeting of Clarksville Town Council.

Microsoft contributed $125,000 for the design, deployment, and operation of the Wi-Fi system, and the town will pay for some of the utility infrastructure work.

The goal will be to provide free wireless internet solutions in downtown Clarksville. The coverage area will run along Virginia Avenue between Second and Seventh Streets, around the Clarksville Community Center, Robbins Park and Shaver Field on Woodland Drive, and around the Clarksville Fine Arts Center, public library, and police station near the Clarksville Crossing Shopping Center at the corner of Highway 15 South and Virginia Avenue.

Varner said the system will offer users free, open access Wi-Fi for up to two hours per day. The two-hour increment will be a hard cut-off since the system will not be set up for extended use needed for online gaming or video streaming.

Town Manager Jeff Jones said no deadline has been set for when Varner must complete the work. Sloan said Varner hopes to have the network installed and at least partially operational by mid-July.

Mayor Kevin Allgood said, “The community Wi-Fi system will allow residents and visitors to stay connected when visiting downtown Clarksville, spending time at the library, attending festivals, or attending a sporting event at Robbins Ballpark. Staying connected is an important part of everyday life in our community, and we are pleased to work with Lake Country Internet, the Clarksville Lake Country Chamber of Commerce, and Microsoft to bring this service to our community.”

Varner said, “We are proud to partner with the Town of Clarksville and Microsoft to build and operate this free community Wi-Fi project for the town. As a local family owned business, we are dedicated to delivering products and solutions that help residents in our community connect to the Internet.”

The main transmission radios will be placed on the town’s water tower located on Woodland Drive, near Shaver Field and Robbins Park. Additional transmitters will be located on rooftops throughout the downtown area, with the permission of the owners of those buildings.

Varner said each radio will form a Wi-Fi hotspot that will allow connected devices to roam seamlessly between other radios in the connected areas. The system will allow for future expansion or changes as technology improves, he said. The only constraint that Varner sees in the design would be if building owners do not permit access to the roofs. This could limit the proposed coverage area.

Sloan said much of the planning and design work, including contact with building owners, was completed before the public announcement took place. That due diligence was needed to take place before Sloan could secure funding for the project.

Microsoft’s motivation for their involvement in the venture is driven by their mission to offer Microsoft “programs and resources that advance social opportunity, enhance economic growth and support environmental sustainability,” according to Sloan.

For the Clarksville Community Wi-Fi program Sloan is teaming up with Jeremy Satterfield, leader of Microsoft’s Virginia TechSpark initiative, because of the common mission of both TechSpark and Microsoft Datacenter Community Development program — to help communities overcome barriers to internet availability and affordability that hinder their access to social, economic, and educational resources.

Once an internet program or need is identified, Sloan said Microsoft works with local service providers to design, deliver and operate appropriate solutions. That is why Microsoft will work through Varner’s company.

Because Microsoft uses non-profit organizations as their fiscal agent for these initiatives, the Clarksville Chamber of Commerce will handle the funding. On Tuesday, Sloan and Varner presented a check for the initial funding to Allgood and Chamber executive director Sheila Cuykendall.

When installation is complete, Varner will create a unique network ID for users to access Clarksville’s Community Wi-Fi. As this will be an open system, users should use their own judgment when accessing programs that require them to input personal data, such as online banking or bill pay.

Varner has cautioned in the past about privacy issues when using open access Wi-Fi. “The systems installed in Boydton and the one that will be in Clarksville have firewalls and security that are built-in, but like any open Wi-Fi they are vulnerable to hackers,” he said.

Varner and Microsoft recently installed a similar Wi-Fi network in Boydton. It’s been operational since October. The Boydton service area covers Courthouse Square east to the Dollar General store on Madison Street in Boydton.

“Microsoft is committed to helping communities fill gaps in broadband coverage. As the world becomes more digital, access to online services and data becomes more important,” said Sloan. “Like the community Wi-Fi system in Boydton, this project will help Clarksville residents and visitors stay connected.”

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