Non-Profit to Run Boston Citywide Wi-Fi

By Eric Griffith

August 01, 2006

Beantown takes a new approach to metro wireless.

The city of Boston, Massachusetts is the latest metropolis to make plans for a citywide Wi-Fi network. The city will start a non-profit organization to deploy, own and run the network. The network will span 49 square miles, with service to 590,000 residents, if and when completed. No timetable has been set yet.

The majority of other big cities, such as San Francisco and Philadelphia, have turned to third-party providers to take care of the network installation and operation. Boston wants more control over the network and how it is used by city workers, as well as its extension into areas with low-income families. While taking on acknowledged risks (funding, political, legal, etc.), the city feels the opportunities outweigh the potential downside.

The network may already have its first customer, in fact. TechWeb says Michael Oh, president of local Tech Superpowers and proprietor of the free local hotspots on Newbury Street and elsewhere, says he'll operate as a Macintosh-only Wi-Fi network. Cost to end users would be $15 a month.

The city wants to raise between $16 and $20 million to build it. The money will come from local businesses, hospitals, universities and financial foundations. The city might provide funding, but Mayor Thomas Menino would not commit to that during a press conference.

The mayor's office has named Pamela Reeve, former CEO of Lightbridge Inc., to run the search to find or found the unnamed non-profit. While it will own/operate the network, it won't be a direct Internet provider, but will allow neutral access to other providers to resell services on the network. Reeve told the Boston Globe she'll be screening non-profit candidates immediately. The new CIO for Boston, Bill Oates, will be working on phase two of the wireless plan to survey the city infrastructure and see what the potential uses are for the network.

Currently, no major city in the United States has a functioning citywide Wi-Fi network, though there are many pilot networks running, and many suburban cities and towns are up and running (St. Cloud, Florida; Chaska, Minnesota; Tempe, Arizona; and Corpus Christi, Texas are among them). EarthLink, which has the contract to unwire Philadelphia and San Francisco, only recently opened its first metro-Wi-Fi network in Anaheim, California.

Over the weekend, Philadelphia's wireless leader, Dianah Neff, left her job as CIO for the city after several tumultuous years trying to get the network off the ground. Most who watch the space say the network would not have made it even this far — and it's just in the opening phases — without Neff in charge. She took knocks for extensive travel during her tenure (including to a Wi-Fi Planet conference), but such trips arguably solidified deals and spread the word about Wireless Philadelphia, making it the poster child for the municipal Wi-Fi movement now afoot in the United States. Neff previously worked in Silicon Valley, and is now moving back to the private sector just as other cities try to catch up with Philly.

Pamela Reeve was a member of Boston's Wireless Task Force formed on February 8th. The group issued a report to the mayor (PDF) recommending the non-profit approach toward citywide Wi-Fi. Among the goals is to reduce the price of broadband in the city from around $35 a month to $15 a month. Currently, 30% of Boston households still use dial-up, 30% don't use the Internet at all, and 40% use broadband — however, broadband is available to 90% of residents.

The Task Force wants the network to "be open to the development of customized service plans, so that all entrepreneurs and businesses can choose broadband speeds that best fit their target application." That could include anything from Internet access to VoIP to meter reading. It recommends starting with 2.4GHz spectrum networks (mesh 802.11b/g) for first-mile access, but acknowledges that it may eventually evolve to other technology such as 802.11n or WiMax in the future.

Many cities are finding it hard to get the access to locations to install wireless equipment. The Wireless in Boston report expects 2,250 mesh access points to cover the city (45 per square mile), mounted on a mix of buildings and poles. The city has access to 467 buildings. As to the 9,000 light poles, the city has property rights to them even though they're owned by Verizon and NSTAR. The city can also install on traffic signal lights (824) and fire department call boxes (1,735, found in every neighborhood).

Any extra money the city of Boston raises for the program will be funneled back into the community organizations that help raise it. It could also go toward improving city services, such as outfitting workers with VoWi-Fi phones to make calls on the cheap.

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