Belton is a town of about 18,000 in the heart of central Texas. Established in 1850, the community is rich in history but isn’t afraid to embrace the future.
Because Belton is situated along Interstate 35 between Austin and Dallas, Marion Grayson, a local business owner and community advocate, believed that business travelers and visitors should be able to stop along their travels to have a bite to eat or shop for services, and be able to communicate with their offices while doing so. Belton is also a college town, and Grayson thought there should be places for students to mingle with the community and continue their studies away from the university.
Grayson knew that a free, local wireless network throughout the community could fill both needs, so she began exploring the idea with Belton Chamber of Commerce president Stephanie O'Banion.
“The whole idea of the project was to have our community be Internet friendly, and to invite visitors into our businesses,” said Grayson.
However, the initial deployment—one that relied on old PCs set up as servers with some off-the-shelf access points—proved complex and unworkable.
“[The old system] slowed down our implementation and took more man hours of professional IT people than our project could handle,” said Grayson. “We really needed access points that were ‘plug-and-play’ ready, so that if an access point went down, the business just needed to reset by unplugging and plugging back in the power.”
Around the same time, Matt Irvine deployed an Open Mesh network at a local church. Enthused about his success with the product, he told Grayson about it and offered to join the project as a consultant. The Belton Wireless Project was reborn.
Now, as each local business decides to participate in the program, the Chamber provides a pre-programmed, cloud-managed Open Mesh 802.11n access point.
When the unit is simply plugged in to power and an existing Internet connection, the business is up and running with free, managed wireless access for their customers.
As users log in, they are redirected to the Belton Wireless Project homepage, where visitors see a list of participating local business and advertising that helps offset the cost of the project. Using the cloud-based network controller, CloudTrax, the network administrator can monitor network traffic, set bandwidth limits, change the network name, control access and more.
"We were able to provide a quality, easy-to-use product that our businesses could understand and use, without taking up much space."
Because the network is managed in the cloud, there is no need for those complex and outage-prone on-site servers. Grayson attributes Open Mesh’s ease of use as one of the key reasons the community project is successful.
“The project is a success because we were able to provide a quality, easy-to-use product that our businesses could understand and use, without taking up much space,” she said. “Our business people have loved the ease of use, and have seen customers use the system with equal ease.”
About a dozen organizations—including offices, restaurants, cafes, the library and community center—are participating in the project so far. With usage of wireless devices such as tablets and smartphones on the rise, Grayson expects that number to continue to climb.