Up your street

Observations on civic renewal

Salem, Massachusetts is a small coastal town about the size of Folkestone in Kent. Wander downtown with your laptop or PDA and you'll find a high-speed wireless internet connection covering several of the streets. It is an innovative urban regeneration project, entirely free to use, and it has been sponsored by local businesses.

For those working on urban regeneration, providing free wireless internet access may seem a luxury. Logic dictates that money is better spent improving local public services, or repairing local infrastructure. SalemOpen.net turns this on its head. It is hoped that wireless connectivity will be a catalyst that strengthens internal community links and in-creases revenue within the area.

Providing high-speed wireless internet access for free may seem like a big financial risk to take, but SalemOpen.net is based on the same business plan as a scheme that has been running very successfully for more than 18 months in Newbury Street, Boston. When drawing up the strict business plan in Salem, the organisers realised that it was ultimately cheaper to offer a free service than a charging one.

The costs are paid for entirely through a three-tier sponsorship scheme. A primary sponsor contributes the bulk of funds and hosts a wired broadband connection on its premises. Non-retail sponsors provide funding and community support. Finally, retail sponsors pay a moderate monthly fee and allow wireless nodes to be installed in their premises. As more outlets join the network, everyone's monthly cost goes down.

The store owners get a lot for their money. They promote themselves to a class of customer (laptop owners) who are likely to have disposable income to spend. They boost their profile in the local area. And they get all the internet access their business could need thrown in for free.

The scheme may have been hugely successful in Boston, but central Salem is a very different prospect to Newbury Street. Salem is not as affluent or as large as Boston. It is a small town with working-class roots. Marketing to wireless-equipped consumers is going to be harder there. But, perhaps, not impossible. The Salem Partnership and Salem Main Streets, two groups committed to local economic development and regeneration, have provided enthusiastic support. Thanks to sponsorship from Eastern Bank, SalemOpen.net launched on 10 June, with nine locations offering wireless access. If it takes off like its precursor in Boston, other businesses will no doubt soon be joining the network.

SalemOpen.net shows how new media can kick-start urban renewal at a very local level: in the heart of a town or across a single street. It can help build communities and give them the infrastructure to develop their businesses. It seems that the place where new media can best aid urban renewal in the UK may be not in its cities, but in its villages.