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Younger crowd hails introduction of new Wi-Fi network in downtown Buffalo

Buffalo’s 20-somethings have a clear-cut mindset: They don’t want to be anywhere without full Wi-Fi access.

That’s why they and many others welcomed Tuesday’s introduction of Buffalo Connect – the new outdoor public Wi-Fi network running along Main Street into downtown and Canalside.

“It makes it easier to be downtown, on Main Street, and not worry about getting directions or finding places to go,” said Allie Mikulec, one of several University at Buffalo students who helped design pages and code the new website. “It will allow more people to access information directly.”

Jacob Schupbach, another of the involved UB students, said that the new free Wi-Fi network allows people to reconnect with others, to share photos, stories and other information on social media.

“I feel more comfortable being in places where there’s Wi-Fi, because you are connected to a world of possibilities.” Schupbach added. “You can find any information you need, at the touch of your fingertips.”

That may mean navigating the streets around Canalside, checking out downtown restaurant locations and menus, consulting a Metro Rail schedule, confirming the time of a play, keeping tabs on the Bills and Sabres or just staying in touch with friends through social media, officials pointed out.

“Buffalo Connect will make downtown Buffalo an easier place to stay connected,” M&T Bank Chairman and CEO Robert G. Wilmers said.

The highly anticipated new public Wi-Fi was launched Tuesday afternoon, three months after the city, UB and M&T unveiled plans for the network. It runs along Main Street, from North Street, near the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, through the Theater District and the downtown office area to Canalside and the Erie Basin Marina.

Mayor Byron W. Brown officially opened the new network by sending a tweet at 1:14 p.m. Tuesday, alerting his followers that downtown Buffalo is now connected online through Buffalo Connect.

Brown – speaking at a brief launching ceremony, along with Wilmers, UB President Satish K. Tripathi and Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority Executive Director Kimberley A. Minkel – noted that the new network will affect some 58,000 downtown workers and more than one million annual visitors to Canalside and the waterfront.

So Buffalo Connect will follow the crowds already flocking to downtown hot spots.

The mayor also suggested the new Wi-Fi network can be used as another tool in the city’s revitalization.

“It will help Buffalo to continue to attract tech-savvy individuals to our city,” Brown said.

Brown wouldn’t commit to potential further expansion of the network in the city.

“Before we make any decisions about extending it to other areas, we want to see how this works,” he replied to one reporter’s question.

Buffalo Connect will operate through more than 30 hot-spot access points. Each point has a 250-foot range, but testing has shown that some reach as far as 500 feet, M&T officials reiterated Tuesday. That means that access can stretch a couple blocks east and west of Main Street.

And no password is required.

“It’s designed for outdoor use,” said C. Michael Zabel, an M&T group vice president. “As we’ve been testing it, there are some places where it gets picked up indoors.”

But the public cannot depend on using it in their downtown offices or apartments. It should be fine for Coca-Cola Field, but not necessarily First Niagara Center.

Officials emphasized that information transmitted on public Wi-Fi networks is not encrypted, so Buffalo Connect should not be used for paying bills, checking a bank account or any activity involving Social Security or credit-card numbers.

But those aren’t the reasons that young people, especially, want to remain connected downtown.

Ian Hurtubise, 24, a Lawley Insurance worker waiting for his Lloyd Taco Truck order outside One M&T Plaza just after noon Tuesday, explained that people his age often complained about the lack of Wi-Fi access for large public events downtown.

“It’s huge, just for the fact that people already are paying for expensive data plans,” he said of Tuesday’s news. “It’s nice to cut costs that way, to save a buck or two.”

M&T has spent $650,000 to install the hot-spot access points, while UB has provided equipment and expertise in engineering design and management.

The UB students involved in the project were all smiles Tuesday, basking in their accomplishments as well as their new Wi-Fi access when they ventured downtown.

Like Dominique Hickson, a UB student from Harlem.

“This gives us a way to make Buffalo home, to make it a new home for us,” she said. “It allows us to find places to hang out in downtown Buffalo. The Wi-Fi becomes the brains for us.”