Herald reader LaVonne Bickle, of Arlington, wondered: “Why would ‘Wi-Fi hot spot’ signs be posted alongside the shoulders of the I-5 freeway?”
First off, it doesn’t mean there’s Wi-Fi on the shoulder. So don’t bother pulling over. (I wondered, too.)
It all started with rest areas.
The state Department of Transportation started a pilot project in 2006 with a private company to offer fee-based Wi-Fi at rest areas. The service ended two years later.
“It didn’t turn out to be cost effective for the private company, and the service was discontinued. This was around the time cellphone companies began offering data plans, so paid Wi-Fi wasn’t needed anymore,” said Nicole Daniels, a WSDOT spokeswoman.
(Incidentally, the rest area hot spots ended the same year a similar project got started on Washington State Ferries. The ferries’ fee-based Wi-Fi service eventually ended for the same reasons, in 2016.)
Instead, WSDOT posted the signs for visitor centers that offered Wi-Fi service, including the Snohomish County Tourism Bureau.
On I-5, WSDOT says there is one sign remaining in Snohomish County. It points to exit 181 on behalf of the South Snohomish County Visitor Information Center at Heritage Park in Lynnwood.
“Wi-Fi hot spots were not originally found so easily,” said Stacey Pfeiffer, visitor services manager for the tourism bureau.
(One could argue the signs still don’t help much because they don’t tell you where to find the Wi-Fi hot spot.)
Public Wi-Fi is offered at each of the tourism bureau’s three visitor information centers. And it’s free — just like the brochures they offer on things to do and see in Snohomish County. In addition to the Lynnwood location, there’s the East County Visitor Center in Snohomish and a visitor center at the Future of Flight in Mukilteo.
When the state dropped Wi-Fi at the rest areas, the information centers’ hot spot status was “an extra service that was important to visitors,” Pfeiffer said.
“Many visitors today still use the Wi-Fi hot spot,” Pfeiffer added. Staff don’t track specific numbers, but they do routinely run out of password slips for visitors who request access.
One more thing …
That Wi-Fi sign near exit 181 was supposed to come down in 2016.
Wi-Fi service was apparently down then, and WSDOT put the sign on a list to take down. But it got overlooked.
Crews were expected to be dispatched soon to finish the job, unaware the service was still offered. Tourism bureau staff have reached out to WSDOT to ask them to leave the sign in place.
Ultimately, visitors to Snohomish County can thank reader Bickle for the continued wayfinding (such as it is).