Helping Wisconsinites Find Free Wi-Fi Outside Public Buildings

May 4, 2020

People with slow or no internet at their home or workplace may be able to briefly tap into free, wireless broadband internet service just outside public buildings. 

The Public Service Commission (PSC) and Department of Public Instruction recently created an online map of about 650 emergency internet locations in Wisconsin. The PSC also set-up a help-line to answer any questions.

It used to be that people on the move with a laptop or phone would have to go inside a library or a coffee shop to connect with higher-speed internet if they didn't have a portable Wi-Fi device with them. But PSC Broadband Director Jaron McCallum says with libraries and other public buildings largely closed, portable Wi-Fi units potentially costly, and restaurants currently barred from offering dine-in service, it's time to tap into Wi-Fi outside buildings.

"Ideally, we would have folks have internet directly at their home. But unfortunately, the reality is there are folks struggling with inadequate internet connections, and these Wi-Fi hotspots throughout the communities across Wisconsin provide an opportunity to access critical information during this pandemic,” McCallum told WUWM.

McCallum says you might be able to get the free Wi-Fi as far as 100 feet from the public building. He says that's not usually the case.

“Many of these facilities have changed their internal set-up and moved the Wi-Fi-emanating devices closer to the exterior of the building. So, it actually increases that range, if you will, of the Wi-Fi signal,” McCallum said.

McCallum recommends sitting in a vehicle while trying to connect with the Wi-Fi to help maintain physical distancing from other people, and to not stay long. He says the emergency internet map isn't complete and changes based on new information.

The new PSC phone number you can call for help is: 608-267-3595.

When we called the number, an operator came on the line in less than two minutes. We gave a home address, and the operator provided the names of a few public buildings a mile or two away in West Allis.

Some field testing with two computers revealed the following: outside West Allis City Hall, the newer computer had no problem connecting to the building's Wi-Fi, but the older computer failed to connect. Outside the West Allis Senior Center, neither computer could bring in the Wi-Fi signal. Outside the West Allis Health Department, using the newer laptop, the connection was speedy.

A later test with the newer laptop outside the downtown Milwaukee library produced a solid but slower Wi-Fi signal. 

Centennial Hall, on the east side of the downtown Milwaukee Public Library.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

The PSC says there could be many reasons why people would want to use the emergency internet finder, including students downloading material for a homework assignment, or people trying to find an open grocery store or pharmacy. 

McCallum says his agency hasn't forgotten there are still parts of Wisconsin lacking broadband service. The PSC recently awarded $24 million in broadband expansion grants thanks to money set aside in the current state budget. He still expects there to be a second round of grants. 

"So, in times of need, folks don't need to drive to these Wi-Fi locations. But the reality is they may be unserved or underserved, and they have to access the internet in a little more of a creative solution like these Wi-Fi hotspots,” McCallum said.

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