When it comes to WiFi, Kansas may be lagging, but Hays, FHSU aren't

At a recent economic development meeting in Topeka, one participant from eastern Kansas lamented the "fact" that Kansas does not have any communities with Wi-Fi, the most common wireless Internet standard, and thus is "lagging behind the rest of the country."

"Some states have four or five Wi-Fi communities," said the easterner.

This statement drew a gasping response from a western Kansan present at the meeting, Dr. Mark Bannister, chair of the Department of Information Networking and Telecommunications at Fort Hays State University.

"What do you mean?" he asked. "I know a Kansas community that has been Wi-Fi for years!"

While a number of communities across the country have included ribbon cuttings, public announcements and celebrations when significant areas of their communities gained free wireless Internet access, Hays, home to Fort Hays State University and a pair of innovative regional Internet service providers, "just did it," said Bannister.

"Because of the university and its emphasis on ‘high tech/high touch,' the community has long had cutting edge telecommunications services," said FHSU President Edward H. Hammond. "In the early days of the Internet, the community once had seven different private Internet service providers in addition to the services that the university and school systems provided patrons."

Today, after a series of acquisitions and mergers, three major companies compete for high-speed Internet access in the Hays community. Two of these are home grown companies: Nex-Tech and Eagle Communications. The other is the national powerhouse, AT&T.

"The use patterns of the Hays community are Internet intense," said Hammond. "Our faculty and students have been significant Internet consumers for years. Also spurring Internet and, particularly, wireless Internet use, was the Hays High School initiative to provide all students in the high school with a laptop." Similarly, all FHSU faculty who want them have been provided laptops by the university. A good share of current Fort Hays State students have their own laptops and, starting with the fall semester of 2007, all incoming students will be required to have wireless tablet computers.
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"We embraced the idea of a Wi-Fi community as both a public service and a way to promote our services," said Jeff Wick, Nex-Tech's chief operating officer.

The first public access Wi-Fi point was installed as a partnership between students in one of Bannister's technology classes and Nex-Tech. The students mapped, designed and installed a set of wireless access points at Hays Regional Airport. Almost simultaneously, Nex-Tech began offering free wireless access at the Hays Public Library. Shortly thereafter, Nex-Tech employees began to install free wireless access at some of their favorite eating establishments, including a Chinese restaurant in The Mall in Hays and at a popular Mexican restaurant.

Wick has been an engaged volunteer with both the Downtown Hays Development Corporation and the Chamber of Commerce. The organizations are committed to revitalizing the community's historic Chestnut Street District and, said Wick, "It was natural for us, as a technology company, to contribute advanced technologies to the revitalization effort. It's what we do best. We were offering wireless Internet at the library in the heart of downtown Hays. With the addition of a new coffee shop, the community's microbrewery, the wood-fired pizza eatery, a college student laundry mat and a series of other strategic locations, the downtown area was covered with free wireless Internet access." Nex-Tech also expanded wireless access at The Mall.

In addition to retail areas, Nex-Tech worked with the Hays Area Convention and Visitor's Bureau and local hotels. Jana Jordan, director of the organization said, "Hays is known as a major stopping point for persons traveling on business and personal travel. One of its advantages is that every hotel in this community provides free wireless Internet access. This is also true of many restaurants and the internationally known Sternberg Museum of Natural History." According to Jordan, "This access is very useful to business people and families traveling with laptops who want or need to keep in touch when they travel."

Gary Shorman, CEO of Eagle Communications, pointed out that his company originally offered Internet access solely through cable and, years ago, initially targeted business users. "Today, Eagle and Nex-Tech both use fixed wireless to provide high-speed subscription access to all of Hays and we can reach much of the rural areas surrounding Hays," said Shorman. He also said that both companies worked with Hays High School when laptops were initiated at the school.

"We offered special packages to families of high school students to provide high-speed Internet access in their homes and to provide Wi-Fi access compatible with their laptops. The 'take rate' of subscribers was remarkable," Shorman said.

Shorman's company now provides digital cable Internet speeds of up to 6 megabytes per second for wired customers -- a speed more than 10 times faster than Wi-Fi wireless, which is attractive to business users and to true Internet speed addicts.

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"FHSU telecommunications students have mapped the free and secured wireless networks in this community," said Bannister. "They have found we have a cloud. Almost all of the public and commercial areas offer free wireless access. They enjoy the fact that the university's Quad and buildings as well as the community are wireless. Students can start an assignment in the university library, move to a park bench and then continue their online research in a laundry, coffee shop or restaurant."

The executive director of the Ellis County Coalition for Economic Development, Mike Michaelis, pointing out that "wires and fiber as well as wireless matter in communication," said that Hays is front and center in the development ranks.

"Hays is on a communications crossroads in the center of the United States," said Michaelis. "People are astounded to know the number of national companies that have points of presence in this county of about 30,000 people and that we have an industrial park that AT&T wired with 72 strands of redundant fiber. Nex-Tech has also bundled fiber to the major call center and other tenants of the park. Rural communities can and often do have significant telecommunications capabilities."

FHSU's Bannister was surprised at the same state economic development meeting to hear people say, "Only if we have municipal networks will we have Wi-Fi communities."

"Municipal networks are one approach," said Bannister. "In Hays, robust private sector competition using Wi-Fi as a free service to entice users to subscribe to higher-end Internet services has provided a private sector solution. People in the community are using the free access for business, to communicate with friends and family and for creative and artistic purposes. Perhaps it characterizes Hays' 'just do it' attitude."

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Kent Steward, Director   |  ksteward@fhsu.edu  |  Kurt Beyers, Assistant Director   |  kbeyers@fhsu.edu