On the busiest summer days in downtown Juneau, it’s easy to notice the crowded sidewalks, packed city buses and longer waits at restaurants. In recent years, residents and visitors alike have struggled with another sign of the season: slower cell service.
“On a low ship day, it works just fine,” said Chris Murray, the City and Borough of Juneau’s IT director. “But when you have more people, it’s congested and nobody’s happy.”
Tourism Manager Alexandra Pierce said complaints have increased since the 2022 tourist season, which saw more than 1 million cruise ship passengers in Juneau for the first time in three years.
“Since the industry returned last year, we’ve had a fairly large volume of questions and complaints about whether or not the cruise ships are contributing to this issue,” she said. “And they absolutely are.”
Now, in an effort to free up space on cell service networks, city officials are considering expanding public Wi-Fi service in the busiest parts of downtown during the tourist season.
“The cellular networks only have a certain amount of capacity,” Murray said. “If we can slice off a chunk of passengers onto public Wi-Fi, that frees up space on the cell networks.”
Wi-Fi reduces physical and virtual congestion
City leaders have used public Wi-Fi to reduce physical congestion at the Juneau Public Library.
Before the library added Wi-Fi to Marine Park in 2018, tourists and crew members would often go to the downtown branch to use the internet. City officials reported more than 100 people used the Wi-Fi there on any given summer day, taking up the armchairs and spots at the desks.
“It was creating some congestion issues for them,” Pierce said.
Yellow signs in the library and near the elevator advertise the free Wi-Fi in Marine Park, which is available from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. during the tourist season. While Wi-Fi connections in the library last up to one hour, those in Marine Park last up to 24 hours.
“I think it’s taken the pressure off the library to some extent,” Pierce said. “Especially when the weather is nice.”
Along with reducing physical crowding in the library, the Marine Park Wi-Fi helps reduce congestion in Juneau’s cell phone networks. When visitors use that Wi-Fi, they’re freeing up space in networks run by cell service providers like AT&T and GCI. Those networks can slow down when there’s a big influx of visitors.
“If you’re in Marine Park and you’re on Wi-Fi, then you’re using the city’s Wi-Fi and you’re kind of not part of the problem,” Pierce said. “All your iMessages and WhatsApp and your Instagram story about Juneau is all happening over Wi-Fi, as opposed to over the 4G or 5G network.”
Expanding the city’s seasonal Wi-Fi would give more visitors a chance to get off the 4G and 5G networks and free up capacity for locals trying to use their phones.
What it takes to expand
The city’s IT department is gauging internet providers’ interest in installing and managing Wi-Fi in a three-square-mile area downtown. The city has put out a request for information, which gives providers a chance to ask questions about the potential project and helps city leaders get a sense of costs and technical requirements.
According to the request, the new Wi-Fi would only run during the daytime from April to September, and work on the project likely wouldn’t start until at least July 2024. Providers can respond to the city’s request until Nov. 8.
Murray said that the three-mile stretch would start at the whale statue and go south along the waterfront.
“We would have to connect various access points all the way from the whale statue south, which means bouncing it off light poles and putting in a lot of infrastructure,” he said.
Murray said the request for information will help determine whether that’s even feasible, given factors like the heights of buildings and distances between light poles.
Murray said many of the light poles along that stretch are owned by Alaska Electric Light & Power. Nearby buildings are owned by the state, the city and private owners. A provider would have to work with all of them to make the new Wi-Fi happen.
“We’re really looking for a vendor that has experience working with multiple entities in a tight location,” he said.
If city leaders decide to pursue the project, Murray said the next step is to identify a funding source. After that, the city could issue a request for proposals and contract with a provider.
That source could be marine passenger fees. The Juneau Assembly and Cruise Lines International Association Alaska would have to approve spending those fees on the project.
Marine passenger fees pay for the Wi-Fi in Marine Park, which is provided by local company SnowCloud Services. The city spent $7,800 to set it up, and it costs about $1,900 per season to run it.
Internet providers have set up temporary Wi-Fi hot spots before. In May 2020, Alaska Communications set up public Wi-Fi hot spots at school parking lots in Anchorage and Fairbanks to help students access the internet when schools went remote.
Other communities provide public Wi-Fi year-round. In Seattle, the city offers free public Wi-Fi at public libraries and several community centers. And throughout Hawaii, state-designated hot spots offer an hour of free Wi-Fi service per device each day.
If Juneau’s project moves forward, it could be the latest way the city adapts to record-breaking visitor numbers during tourism season.