Boston launches Wi-Fi pilot

Boston city officials this week announced the completion of the first wireless pilot in the Roxbury, Grove Hall and Dudley Square neighborhoods.

The wireless mesh network comprises 64 wireless radios installed on top of buildings, light poles and traffic signals. The pilot covers a one-square-mile area of about 8,000 households, with a median income of about $26,000 ' considerably less than the city's average median income of $42,500.

Users will be able to access the wireless network starting at $9.95 per month.

Boston also is experimenting with different types of technology. The first pilot neighborhood setups used proprietary hardware and software from BelAir Networks; the next pilot, in the Fenway and Mission Hall neighborhoods, will use open-source software installed on off-the-shelf hardware.

'Today, we are celebrating a significant milestone in bringing the power of the Internet to a community which may not have enjoyed access in the past,' said Mayor Thomas Menino. 'We are thrilled to deliver on this commitment at no cost to the taxpayers, and we hope folks will take advantage of low-cost Internet access that is now available to them.'

Caught in the mesh

The journey to municipal wireless in Boston has not been a smooth one. OpenAirBoston.net, the nonprofit corporation established by the city to manage the project, stated that it would raise $16 million to $20 million for the project, but to date has only raised 'hundreds of thousands' of dollars. The project is also behind schedule. In April 2007, city leaders had promised citywide access by 2008, but are now only testing the project on a neighborhood scale.

Other cities have stumbled in their efforts to provide municipal wireless networks to all: similar projects in Philadelphia, San Francisco, Chicago and Houston have all been put on hold because the private Internet providers on the projects bailed out.

Craig Settles, president of consulting firm Successful.com, says that Boston and other cities are making a mistake by focusing their municipal Wi-Fi efforts on general consumers. 'They're hard to get, expensive to retain. So if you're a potential investor, you think, 'Why should I put my money there?' '

Offering free or low-cost municipal wireless to all is a great idea, but it's just not economically viable, at least not in the way it's currently being developed in most cities, Settles said. 'You have to take care of the financial aspect before you can address either underserved communities or the public at large.'

Settles offers three ways cities could make municipal Wi-Fi more economically viable.

First, cities would fare better by first applying the network to city government use, Settles said. The network could establish cost reductions and improve government services. The network then becomes a revenue source.

Second, cities need to identify businesses that can be co-anchor tenants with the city. For example, Boston has the highest concentration of colleges and universities in the United States. If the city were to partner with the schools, it could take over management of students' Wi-Fi accounts, giving students citywide access, not just on campus.

Third, the city can develop medical facilities as co-anchor tenants. In Tucson, Ariz., for example, emergency medical teams use the city network to facilitate emergency response. Emergency medical technicians can send video to the trauma center even before the patient is put in an ambulance and consult with emergency room staff.

These co-anchor tenants can create revenue streams, which can be used to build out the networks to the rest of the community, Settles said.

About the Author

Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.

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