It's a Wi-Fi world
Cables snaking from computer to outlet to phone line and back have been an obligatory part of the computer age, but with the arrival of wireless high speed Internet, commonly known as Wi-Fi, tripping on a tangled mess of cords may soon be a thing of the past.
Wi-Fi allows users to check e-mail messages and perform Google searches without plugging into a phone or cable line, and Wi-Fi "hotspots" - places where a free, public network is available - are spreading throughout the Island. Web surfers are lured by the promise of a strong signal, and often end up sipping a cup of freshly brewed coffee. Frequently used as a strategy to bring in customers - whether to the local library or the neighborhood pub - business owners say the tactic is working.
With a Wi-Fi capable laptop and a little know-how, Islanders can now pick up a wireless Internet connection from at least one location in every town. All six towns have free wireless Internet available at the public libraries. In addition, Wi-Fi connections are present at many down-Island coffee shops and watering holes. As you move up-Island, the connections become scarcer.
Suniti Bernard of Oak Bluffs set up camp with her laptop in the Oak Bluffs Library this week, where free Wi-Fi has been available since the new facility opened a year ago. Photo by Ralph Stewart
Most libraries and businesses that offer Wi-Fi leave the connection open 24-hours a day, even while they are closed to regular business. In turn, users are often seen at all hours of the night and early morning, sitting in cars with the bluish-glow of the computer screen highlighting their face.
Wi-Fi allows users to connect to the Internet by using a device known as a wireless router, which, through small antennae, transmits and receives an Internet signal of limited range within a house or business. Wi-Fi works on a radio frequency, and transmits the data from point A to point B, and back.
A business that provides free Wi-Fi to customers simply places a router in the center of the building, where it essentially creates a bubble of access around the structure. A quality indoor router can cast a signal up to 300 feet, which often gives users the choice of sitting at tables inside, or outside on benches or grassy areas when the weather is warm.
Despite the convenience of checking the latest news headlines while waiting for your take-out, hooking up to a wireless network also poses some risks. Knowledgeable outside computer users can monitor electronic communications, fetching user names, passwords, and any other information that is transmitted or received.
Individuals and businesses that have a Wi-Fi connection for their personal use often put security protection on the line, which forces users to enter a password before logging on. But for businesses that are promoting the use of their open network, the risks are widespread.
Libraries of the future
All six Island libraries provide free Wi-Fi service to people who have a wireless Internet-ready computer. Comcast, which has replaced Adelphia as the cable provider on the Island, provides free high-speed Internet and cable television to all the Island libraries, according to Comcast spokesperson Shawn Feddeman. The libraries in turn connect the Internet service to the wireless router, providing the Wi-Fi connection to users.
"Drive by any of the libraries at midnight in the summertime and you will see people perched with their laptops," recalled Edgartown library director Felicia Cheney. "When it's raining out and there is not enough seating, people will even sit on the floor inside."
To say that wireless Internet is popular on the Island would be an understatement, according to many Island librarians. The service has revolutionized how and where people can use and access the Internet, and could revitalize shrinking library usage, Ms. Cheney said.
"I think this is where libraries are moving in the future," she said, admitting, though, that their advertising tactics have been less than stellar. Last summer the Edgartown and Vineyard Haven libraries distributed a brochure to various Island locations, and plans call for a larger circulation of that brochure next summer.
Most Island libraries have offered free Wi-Fi service for at least the past year. All six leave the connection open even when the library is closed.
Marjorie Convery, director of the Vineyard Haven library, said there is a surge of users in the summer months when people vacation on the Island and bring their work with them. She said use slows down in the winter because most people tend to work on home or office computers, and have little need to bring them into the library.
"We have offered the service for three years and every year it gets bigger," Ms. Convery said, adding that their network stretches to Main Street, where users will often sit in their car after hours to access the web.
In Oak Bluffs, where a brand-new, two-story library opened a year ago, Wi-Fi has been available since the first day. Matthew Bose, a reference librarian, said on sunny days this summer people often stretched out on the grassy lawn to catch some sun, while checking the latest Red Sox score or e-mailing friends off-Island. Mr. Bose said there are currently no statistics available as to how many people actually utilize the Wi-Fi service.
In West Tisbury, Chilmark, and Aquinnah, the public libraries are one of very few places where public Wi-Fi networks are available. Chilmark associate librarian Kimberly Schlesinger said the Wi-Fi service is widely used, and even at this time of year she spots someone using it at least once a day.
With little advertising, library directors said people commonly learn of the service through word of mouth. All the libraries except for Aquinnah and West Tisbury list the Wi-Fi service on their web sites.
Bring your laptop here
Visit any Starbucks on the mainland and most of the tables are filled with latte-sipping web surfers. With the absence of the monopoly chain on Martha's Vineyard, Islanders still have a variety of free Wi-Fi hotspots from which to pick.
The libraries get Internet for free, so sharing the connection does not add a financial cost. But for businesses that don't have that perk, why would they pay for a service and not charge the customers?
"We need Internet anyway, so why not have it available to everybody?" MVTV station manager Stephen Warriner rationed. The MVTV building on the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School campus offers a public Wi-Fi network. Other business said they subscribe to this same philosophy.
Island coffee shops Espresso Love, Beetlebung Coffee House, and Tisbury Market and Deli offer free Wi-Fi, along with the Black Dog Café on State Road. Oak Bluffs nightspots Season's and Offshore Ale also offer the service. Most of the Island inns and many rental homes are equipped with a wireless router, and even the Airport Laundromat and the Steamship Authority (SSA) have leaped into the wireless age and started offering the service.
"It's something new to try, and will hopefully attract new customers," said Paul Hakala, owner of the Daily Grind. "I also had a lot of people asking me for it."
With his small coffee shop on Beach Road attempting the feat of staying open throughout the winter, Mr. Hakala said people have already noticed the posted signs, and started to bring in their laptops. The Daily Grind started offering Wi-Fi just after Thanksgiving.
"I really think the big draw will be when college kids get here," Mr. Hakala said. "And the summer residents."
Offshore Ale has offered free Wi-Fi service since last February, and often play host to business lunches and employees who need an hour out of the office.
"I didn't go crazy about advertising because I didn't want people to think I was changing it into an Internet café," said owner Phil McAndrews, adding that groups often come in during the lunch hour and use the high-backed, six-person booths as mini-offices. Mr. McAndrews said the use of Wi-Fi at Offshore Ale has actually grown in the off-season.
"At first we had a few people who stopped in, opened up their laptops and saw there was a signal," he said. "And then it grew by word of mouth.
Although the Martha's Vineyard Airport charges a fee to their use Wi-Fi, travelers can hop over to the Airport Laundromat for free access. As for the other type of traveler, all five SSA terminals are equipped with Wi-Fi, and they are working on installing the service on the ferry while traveling between Woods Hole and the Vineyard, said Mary Claffey of the SSA's information technology department. Keeping a constant connection while the ferry is between two ports is difficult, she said, and they want the service to be seamless before it is officially offered to passengers.
The Mansion House offers DSL and Wi-Fi Internet service for $3.50 per hour, along with many other Island lodges that make the service available for their guests.
David Zeilinger, general manager of the Beach Plum and Menemsha Inns said "after sending two or three people to the library [for wireless] I said, I have to set that up here." Wi-Fi is available in all the public areas of the two inns, including the restaurant.
The Harbor View Hotel in Edgartown also has an open network, where an afternoon in a porch rocker could be one of the most stunning locations to surf the net.