We recently learned about Aztec, New Mexico‘s, free downtown Wi-Fi so we decided to contact Wallace Begay, the IT Director, to find out more. This desert community of about 6,600 people not only offers the free service, but uses its fiber to serve government, schools, and even four-legged residents.
Begay tells us that in 1998 the city and school system coordinated to install the original fiber and the entities share ownership. The school wanted better, affordable connectivity for students while the city wanted economic development opportunities. Community leaders used E-rate funding and a Gates Foundation grant to construct the original fiber aerial route.
The town provides water, wastewater, and electric services through municipal utilities with its SCADA system. The public library and all ten Aztec Municipal School facilities connect to the fiber network. Municipal government facilities also use the network.
Even though the city is a co-owner, it took several years for municipal offices to get on the fiber network. Aztec City Council originally decided to install the fiber network as a way to bring in revenue by leasing dark fiber, not as a way to connect offices. When Begay started at the city in 2001, administrative offices still used dial-up connections. Twenty dial-up accounts (and the crawling speeds associated with them) added up to $500 each month.
At the time, Qwest (not CenturyLink) was the provider in Aztec and could only offer microwave or copper connections. Connecting 13 facilities at 1.4 Mbps would have cost the city $1,200 each month. Begay used $500 from the electrical enterprise fund to purchase equipment and pay for tech labor to move municipal offices on to the existing network. The city electrical enterprise fund pays for expansions and updates. The network is now about 12 miles.
Begay is especially pleased about the 2004 expansion to the Aztec Animal Control facility, serving all of San Juan County. Before the expansion, Animal Control also used dial-up and spent a significant amount of time fielding calls from worried pet owners. Now, when a new animal arrives it is photographed and vitals are posted online. Staff spends more time working with animals rather than answering calls and more pets find their way home. Begay says Aztec Animal Control also teams up with local animal shelters to share video of potential adoptees to expand adoption possibilities.
In 2010, new City Manager Joshua Ray, embraced the idea of providing free Wi-Fi. From a 2011 Farmington Daily Times article:
“Aztec has possibly the best fiber infrastructure for Internet in the entire southwestern United States, so we decided to capitalize on it and build a citywide Internet connection,” he said. “I’m hoping we can eventually light up the whole city with free Internet.”
“In other cities, you have to go hunt down the Starbucks or McDonald’s to get free Internet,” he said. “We’ll have it throughout the city, and I think that will be incredibly attractive to businesses and tourists. It will really improve the quality of life for our citizens and visitors, and I think it will be an economic driving factor for Aztec.”
With a New Mexico Certified Community Initiative grant and additional funds from the city, Begay purchased the equipment for the Wi-Fi network for around $75,000.
There are 19 hotspots, mostly along the business corridor. Begay says the community is considering expanding the range to reach residential areas.
Begay told us Wi-Fi users sign on for two hour time blocks to discourage “squatters.” The Wi-Fi offers up to 11 Mbps and many businesses downtown use it for Internet access and simple applications. They also appreciate the ability to offer access to patrons. Entrepeneurs in Aztec often contact the city to find out details about the Wi-Fi signal when choosing a location for a new business. Aztec sponsors several large outdoor festivals in Minium Park and the city provides free day-long access so vendors can serve customers and increase sales.
The city still intends to offer commercial dark fiber leasing and is vetting technical and legal requirements. Begay estimates Aztec will have pieces in place within three months and will be ready to sign up its first customer.