Wireless in Dudley

By Adam Stone

July 21, 2003

Several community and technology groups are banding together to offer Wi-Fi-powered, kiosk-based Internet access in a Boston bus station. Many feel it shows not just the power of Wi-Fi, but could help begin another bridge over the digital divide.

The people who pass through the central bus terminal -- the MBTA's Dudely Square Bus Station -- in Boston's Roxbury neighborhood don't carry laptops. Few even have dial-up service at home. Soon, however, a community project will harness the power of a wireless network to give them free Internet access at a vendor push-cart kiosk in the station.

With its low deployment cost and high-speed capacity, advocates say, Wi-Fi could be an ideal vehicle for social change in areas where access to digital information still is spotty at best.

"The African-American and Latino communities have been systematically left behind as far as technology is concerned. I am not saying that there are no people in the inner city who use a computer or even have one in their home, but we know that the gap is significant," explained Alexis Brooks. "We are really looking to raise the level of interest. That is what this hub will represent."

As vice president of wired- and wireless-infrastructure firm Inside Cable, Brooks is one of several community leaders helping to develop the wireless kiosk. Other players include community service organizations the Urban League and Nuestra Communidad, and also tech vendors CityKi and TechSuperpowers (the last is the group behind the Newbury Open Network of free Wi-Fi found in downtown Boston).

The wireless aspect of the project was a natural outgrowth of the physical situation within the transit station, explained Khalid Mustafa, manager of technology for the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts.

The Urban League is donating a portion of its bandwidth to the project. While the league's offices are located near the station, they still are not conveniently situated to make a land line connection a practical option. "Trying to make a hard-wire connection into the station and then to one of the push carts would have been very cumbersome, if not impossible," said Mustafa.

Thus Mustafa will rely on a Wi-Fi connection to carry connectivity from his network to the public-access kiosk.

Known officially as "Wireless in Dudley," after the Dudley Square bus station, the project is envisioned as a first step in what could become a wider effort to use cost-effective wireless networking as a way to introduce Internet access to Boston's urban population. A 90-day trial this summer "should help us to understand what we will need to do to market it going forward," said Brooks. "This will be a crucial phase for us to glean the level of interest and to see what we need to tweak, what we need to add and what we need to take away."

In addition to general Internet access, the wireless terminal at Dudley will offer bus schedules, community information and other relevant links.

Analysts say the project could fulfill a number of useful goals, starting with the introduction of Internet services in an historically underserved area. "I applaud them for taking a stab at it and at least trying to enable larger numbers of people," said Summit Strategies analyst Warren Wilson.

At the same time, a success in Roxbury could give a further boost to the growing popularity of 802.11 technology overall.

"It shows the versatility of Wi-Fi," said Wilson. "It's a cheap, ubiquitous networking capability and in that sense it opens up a lot of potential applications that people might have discarded in the past because they were not deemed practical when networking was more expensive. This kind of project shows that the potential of wireless to enable new applications has only begun to be tapped."

Some see the ramifications going even further. Thanks to Wi-Fi, "we are able to bring the technology and bring the resources out to the people," said Mustafa. This in turn could spur a new degree of economic activity in the area. "Even for those who don't know or who are not familiar with the Internet, it could start them asking questions, and from there it might even open up career possibilities, as they go on to look for training. But first they have to know that the technology is available."

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