Smart Towns for smartphones: how Gwynedd's towns and villages are staying connected with visitors
In this connected age, staying in touch from wherever you are is a high priority for many. So being without a phone signal, preventing people from connecting, can be a problem.
Unfortunately, all mobile signals are not created equal. In some towns, you’ll get a strong signal from one provider, a weak one from another – and from other networks, no signal at all. So how do you stay in touch?
In 2016 business owners in Aberdaron, dogged with poor mobile reception and no high speed broadband, worked with Arloesi Gwynedd Wledig and communications experts on a pilot project to install a free-to-use public wi-fi network in the village. Essentially bouncing a wi-fi signal from one part of the village to another, the system asked users to provide an email address and in return they’d be provided with free wi-fi whenever they were in the village.
Fast-forward to 2021, and there are now ten towns and villages in Gwynedd signed up to the pilot’s successor. Under the ‘Smart Towns’ scheme, which evolved from the trial in Aberdaron, there are now public wi-fi networks set up in Bala, Beddgelert, Bethesda, Blaenau Ffestiniog, Llan Ffestiniog, Penygroes, Porthmadog and Pwllheli – and of course, Aberdaron, where it all started.
It would be easy for the less-technical among us to dismiss the need for wi-fi as another excuse for people to have their noses buried in their phones instead of drinking in their surroundings.
But mobile connectivity is not all about sharing photos to social media – there is a more practical use too. Most smartphones these days have apps installed, like Messenger, Facetime and WhatsApp, which enable calls over wi-fi, so even without a phone signal people can still make audio and video calls if a wi-fi connection is available.
There’s also a strong business case for offering a free public wi-fi system. The theory is that in Smart Towns, people will visit more often, stay longer, and patronise local businesses – contributing to the local economy.
What’s more, there are two less-obvious benefits that are really pushing businesses in Smart Towns to be innovative.
The first is gaining an understanding of footfall. Knowing which days and times are historically busiest helps business owners to plan everything from opening hours to staff rotas.
The second is the potential to use the data gathered through the system to understand the visitors themselves: understand what they want and need, provide those needs more accurately, and tell them about events and offers that might draw them back to the town in future.
In the Aberdaron pilot, a website was created for publicising information about the village and the surrounding area, including events, activities and history. Registrants to the wi-fi system were asked about their areas of interest – food and drink, adventure activities, walking, socialising and so on – and were sent newsletters tailored to their interests, with links to the most relevant articles on the website.
In Pwllheli, the data – including the footfall statistics, which can be viewed at www.patrwm.io – is also used to good effect.
Eric Price, Pwllheli’s Town Clerk, explains:
“We’ve been using the system for over a year and it gives us invaluable data as to how many people log in to the community wi-fi, but also at which time of the day, and we then get their email address which allows us to work with local businesses to promote their services via our newsletter to those that have accessed the wi-fi – locals and visitors alike. We are also now better aware of when the town is at its busiest, and we’re able to feed that information to the local businesses to ensure that they’re open to take advantage of the increased footfall.”
The smartphone is not going away any time soon. In 2020 a whopping 60% of UK survey respondents said the smartphone was their main device for internet access - so love them or loathe them, smartphones are here to stay. And that being the case, don’t be surprised to find more towns becoming ‘smart’ to keep up with the trend.
SMART Towns Cymru Workshops.