In the next year or so, you may be able to get a free Wi-Fi signal from street lamps in downtown Portland.

The City Council voted unanimously Monday, with Mayor Ethan Strimling absent, to approve an $8.5 million project to purchase its street lights downtown and several islands from Central Maine Power Co.

The project would allow the city to install more efficient LED lights, as well as install Wi-Fi, among other technologies, saving up to $1 million a year, once the project is paid for.

“We are very, very excited to bring this to you,” City Manager Jon Jennings said, noting the city would be “pushing the envelope” in terms of technology. “To me this is one of the most significant achievements we will have made as a city since the time I started in my position.”

City Councilor Justin Costa said the city was sure to save money once the project is complete, while also getting more efficient and environmentally friendly lighting. He noted that the city will spend $8.5 million to save $10 million over 10 years.

“The bottom line here is there is literally nothing but upside to what is being proposed here,” Costa said.

Communities throughout the country are looking to get more out of their street lights by not only switching to more efficient light-emitting diode bulbs, but using those fixtures for free public Wi-Fi and other technology.

So called “smart cities” technologies allow a city to monitor, control and analyze various aspects of daily life, from informing citizens, to moving traffic, lighting streets and finding parking.

The Greater Portland Council of Governments has been encouraging area municipalities to take advantage of a 2013 change in state law. That change allows municipalities to purchase the light fixtures on poles owned by utility companies, so more efficient lighting can be installed.

Falmouth, South Portland, Biddeford and Rockland were the first communities to team up on such a project, according to Jennifer Brennan, GPCOG’s energy projects manager. So far, none of those communities has moved forward with Wi-Fi, though some are considering advanced controls.

Scarborough is currently soliciting proposals for an LED conversion with “Smart City and Internet of Things technologies where practical.”

Falmouth Town Manager Nathan Poore has been working for the last 15 years on getting state regulations changed to allow municipalities to install LED lights. He said the town is currently testing which bulbs its wants to install in its 600 or so street lights.

Poore said the town may consider adding some advanced control functions to its lights, which would allow for some lights to be dimmed and timed differently. But there are no plans to offer Wi-Fi, he said, even though all of the new fixtures are set up to accommodate that technology.

“The technology is phenomenal,” Poore said.

Poore said his next regulatory challenge is changing state laws to allow municipalities to pay for only the electricity used by their street lights. Currently, municipalities are charged a flat rate for each light, he said, but the net lights have smart meters that could measure actual usage. Towns could save additional money by turning off lights at certain times, or dimming them in certain areas, he said.

“Right now you’re paying a flat fee based on dark hours, so it doesn’t really matter if you dim them,” he said. “At some point we need the regulations to accommodate that technology.”

Planning Director Tex Haeuser said South Portland is taking a similar route. The city plans to set up a pilot program for the lights soon, he said, and will await recommendations from its contractor, Real Energy, before making a decision on Wi-Fi.

Portland on Monday chose TEN Connected Solutions to do its conversion.

Portland plans to finance the project in two phases. The first phase would be funded by a $4 million, 10-year loan from Banc of America Public Capital Group at a 2.05 percent interest rate.

In phase one, about $2.9 million is being allocated to retrofit more than 6,000 streetlights with LED lighting.

Nearly $1.8 million more would be used for so-called Smart City projects, including Wi-Fi for roughly 100 locations. Other projects include light upgrades at City Hall, Payson Park and Deering Oaks.

Jennings said in an interview the new system would have a special light – either red or blue – to alert residents to parking bans or extreme weather events.

Phase two would invest another $2.3 million in LED conversions and control upgrades and another $1.7 million to add Wi-Fi at up to 300 more locations.

Jennings said the goal is to provide Wi-Fi coverage downtown, while also providing free Wi-Fi to residential nodes, like Woodfords Corner, Morrill’s Corner and Northgate, among others.

Jennings said the project also could include digital information kiosks to help people navigate the downtown area.

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

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