Utah city offers free Wi-Fi at public parks

West Valley City (UT) officials flipped the switch recently to turn on free wireless high-speed Internet that will reach all 22 of its public parks by the end of the year.

The West Valley Family Fitness Center and Centennial Park, which surrounds it, is the first community space to offer the West Valley Connect Wi-Fi network, capable of streaming video and music, scrolling through news and social media, or completing any number of daily tasks that have moved online, according to city officials.

In March, Wi-Fi will become available in 16 West Valley parks, and by the end of the year, in all 22 parks, as well as public facilities. Once all lights are green, West Valley will offer the most public parks and spaces with free Wi-Fi access in a single city in Utah.

The Wi-Fi network is a milestone in the city’s longtime goal to increase access to high-speed Internet, City Manager Wayne Pyle said Thursday. Community Wi-Fi can support entertainment, education, financial tracking and planning, or employment.

Wireless access will encourage residents to learn what they can do with online tools.

“Anything from what your retirement portfolio might be and you’re learning about it as you watch your grandkids play in the park, or whether you’re applying for a job,” Pyle said. “Our effort here is really to be able to provide that same level of access to all 135,000 of our residents.”

Within moments of the ceremonial activation of West Valley Connect, Mayor Ron Bigelow had his laptop out and was connecting to the network. Once online, his first stop was Netflix to test video streaming. Meanwhile, city employees struck up conversations with people moving about the bustling community center, telling them about the new free Wi-Fi and pointing at the many receivers situated along the ceiling.

Coleen Graham, a West Valley mother of two who comes to the center a few times a week with her family, learned about the new Wi-Fi after leaving a game of pickleball. There have been many days that the part-time nurse has longed for Wi-Fi in the building, when she has tried to check for messages from work between activities or wished she had access to a video or music during a run on the treadmill.

“I’ve thought that several times, actually,” Graham said. “I just like to multitask a lot. I’ll be able to get emails done upstairs while I’m on the treadmill and my kids are playing happily in the day care, or I can get other things done while I’m working out. This is exciting for me.”

Once spring arrives, Graham and her two sons, ages 1 and 3, will head for West Valley’s parks, where the busy mother looks forward to staying connected while she plays with her boys. Internet access would also support her husband’s hobby buying and selling odd items online, she added.

“I’m always trying to find a new park, and whether a park has Wi-Fi or not might determine whether we go to it,” Graham said. “That would make a difference.”

In addition to serving the community, abundant Wi-Fi will also help the city do its business, Pyle said. He envisioned the city’s annual softball competitions coming later this year, which will now be able to be organized using digital devices there in the park, while concession sales can be moved onto a computer rather than tracked using a notebook and a pen.

The network runs on the “backbone” of fiber optic cable that underlays West Valley City, part of the UTOPIA telecommunication alliance. UTOPIA’s newly named executive director, Roger Timmerman, joined Pyle in symbolically “connecting” the Wi-Fi, plugging two large cables together.

UTOPIA, the Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency, is made up of 11 cities that joined together more than a decade ago to create a way to provide ubiquitous access to high-speed data services. However, through the years budget shortfalls, low sign-ups and stalled construction left the fiber-optic network incomplete, reaching little of its intended customer base and plagued by financial woes.

Fiber optic lines for UTOPIA Internet currently run through the whole city and reach about 20 percent of West Valley households, Pyle said, with 1,000 more homes expected to be added this year.

There is no target date to have all homes connected.

“We can’t quite get (Internet) to each individual house yet, but we can provide it in all 22 of our parks and all our public facilities,” Pyle said.

Layton, another UTOPIA city, also offers free Wi-Fi in its parks.

Email: mromero@deseretnews.com, Deseret Morning News (Salt Lake City)