If you're walking down the street and your mobile device suddenly detects a Wi-Fi hotspot, stop and take a look around – you may see one of Bigbelly's solar-powered, Wi-Fi-enabled, recycling/garbage bins nearby. With the help of New York city-based Downtown Alliance, Bigbelly has been conducting a pilot test in which two of these bins were turned into free public Wi-Fi hotspots. They've already proven a success, but Bigbelly feels there is room to do even more for cities and their residents.

When Bigbelly launched over 12 years ago, its mission was to create the best-possible waste-management system on the planet. It started off with enclosed trash/recycling bins, adding the solar-powered element shortly after. The solar panels provide the energy required to operate the compactor, which allows the bins to collect five times more trash before needing to be emptied.

The company also subsequently implemented cloud-based connectivity that enabled Bigbelly to provide customers with real-time data access to hundreds of its stations to take all the guesswork out of knowing which bins need emptying. But then it dawned on the company that its stations are set in some prime real estate locations all over the world, and that these solar-powered, sustainable, cloud-connected bins could provide additional services, such a free public Wi-Fi by way of a wireless repeater installed on the bottom of each station.

Downtown Alliance has been running a free Wi-Fi program since 2003 and is currently servicing more than 3.7 million sq ft (343,700 sq m) of coverage. It brings in and pays for internet lines to buildings and installing access points to expand the wireless signal along the street.

"One of the biggest challenges in implementing free Wi-Fi is how to provide power to our access points," Downtown Alliance Chief Technology Officer Jeremy Schneider told us when asked about the goal of this pilot program and Downtown Alliance's role. "Our idea was to work with Bigbelly to take advantage of the solar power capability they already have to power our access points. This pilot project has shown that Bigbelly can power an access point for a significant portion of the day."

Although solar power has limitations late in the evening and during winter months, installing Wi-Fi on Bigbelly stations has proven to be a smart way of expanding existing hotspot coverage further along city streets. And since these access points are located at the street level, cities can provide the best wireless signal strength by avoiding the clutter of infrastructure.

"There is this whole smart-city initiative that people are talking about, the idea of adding more services and smarter technology and functionality to the people," Leila Dillon, VP of Marketing for Bigbelly told Gizmag. "But one thing that cities and towns don't want to do is add more unnecessary infrastructure. Poles and towers add more cost, are unsightly, and can be a challenge to service and maintain."

Although most people can agree that free Wi-Fi hotspots are pretty awesome, Bigbelly is focused on further developing their solar-powered garbage/recycling stations into powerful tools.

"Some of the other things that we're looking at is being able to track urban intelligence data," added Dillon. "Also things like footfall, pollution levels, radiation levels, and many other services, applications, and benefits to this core city infrastructure that every city and town has and needs."

Bigbelly stations can be found in major cities in each US state and several countries around the world. Considering how these recycling/garbage bins are enclosed to prevent smells and leaks, self-powered, and primed for hotspot connectivity, cities potentially have a smarter way to provide services while reclaiming public space. No one wants to linger around a foul-smelling trash can, but when it comes to those provided by Bigbelly, one person’s trash is another group of teenagers' Wi-Fi, as shown in the photo above.

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