Can a community partnership have the potential to reach 14,000 people in one day? When most of us think of community partnerships, we think of an organization sponsoring the local minor league baseball team or joining a long list of co-sponsors for events with the United Way and the Walk for Diabetes. But what other options are out there? Eastman Credit Union ($1.8B, Kingsport, TN) has been offering the town of Kingsport, TN and surrounding areas free Wireless Fidelity (WiFi) access since early 2007.
With Eastman's sponsorship of the maintenance and equipment, the new system has the potential to provide up to 35% of the community free internet access through their laptops, PDAs, and cell phones. The credit union worked with the Greater Kingsport Alliance for Development (GKAD) with a common mission to connect lower-income areas to the World Wide Web. Embarq, a local internet service provider donated bandwidth while Appalachian Electric Power set up wireless access points.
"We saw there was a real need. We did our homework. And we looked at the underserved areas to follow our credit union philosophy," said Andy Hale, eServices Manager at Eastman. "So far everything has worked out great."
Eastman started with access points on the credit union's branches. "Now we are seeing businesses that want to purchase bridges so their patrons will have access to the WiFi network," Hale said. "The service promotes economic development of Kingsport."
The results are going beyond connecting the underserved to the internet. The police, fire, and rescue personnel have access to the internet, giving them more effective coverage of the area. The school systems now have enhanced educational programs and better communication between students and faculty. And with an average of 330 conventions and tournaments in the Kingsport area annually, the tourism industry has certainly reaped the benefits as well. The free internet service has not only brought back visitors and vendors, but it's also attracting a new wave of tourists.
Getting the Word Out
When visitors enter kingportwirless.org they are welcomed by Eastman Credit Union and GKAD and their sponsors. The splash page is just the beginning of their successful promotional efforts. "The word of mouth has been phenomenal," Hale said. "This has been one of the most valuable things we've done for the cost. It snowballs with national and local media coverage. The program's publicity has helped spur sponsorship interest for the program." Each time the credit union adds value to the free service, like increased bandwidth, they put out a press release, in an effort to 'let folks know what's happening'.
The program also distributes promo cards in retail locations. And to encourage more low-income individuals to use the free wireless access, the credit union is looking at ways to get them connected, including a PC donation effort. And with more creative promotions and sponsorships in the pipeline, Eastman has bigger plans for the future of the program.
"We already have plans for the future growth of the Eastman WiFi program. The major areas where the population is concentrated we'll have covered," Hale said. "We're doing it for the right folks in the right area in the right order." The plans include covering every low-income neighborhood in the area.
Andy Hale of Eastman Credit Union will be a speaker on the November 12th Callahan Webinar Network event, Building High Profile Community Partnerships.