Boston Tests Wireless Waters

By Eric Griffith

October 18, 2006

A number of providers have set up hotspots and are preparing residential hotzones to showcase options before issuing an RFP.

The city of Boston took its first tentative steps toward citywide Wi-Fi this week as mayor Thomas Menino plugged new hotspots and announced plans for a hotzone. All of these projects are part of a learning stage that the city's Wi-Fi nonprofit company wants to go through before issuing a formal request for proposals (RFP) to the world at large.

"There's many cities announced and underway with various Wi-Fi build-outs -- I think they've had successes and failures, and we look at how they did it and want to learn from that." says Pam Reeve, interim CEO of the nonprofit group the city has formed to eventually own and operate the network in Boston. "We're now in the 'lets learn as much as we can' phase... we want vendors to help us learn," she says.

To that end, the city has launched two hotzones in popular areas downtown. The first, around the well-traveled Quincy Market, City Hall Plaza and Faneuil Hall area, is operated by local company Galaxy Internet Services with Wi-Fi mesh equipment from SkyPilot Networks.

A second hotspot is running in the North End's Columbus Park. It’s a joint deployment of Verizon, Cisco, the Boston Redevelopment Authority and the Boston Parks Department.

In a statement, city mayor Menino said, "The downtown locations will help boost economic growth by making the city an even more attractive place to work and visit."

Finally, plans are underway to install a one square mile hotzone in the Roxbury suburb, specifically in the Grove Hall and Dudley Square neighborhoods. It will be built and run by Charys Technology Group using equipment from BelAir Networks for client and mesh connections, Gigabeam for high-speed backhaul radio hardware, and with MetroNext providing the direct backhaul connection. It could cover up to 5,000 households with service.

"Once the network is running, people in that square mile can use various Wi-Fi devices on their porch, at the coffee shop, wherever, and tap in and get on the Internet with high quality, high performance and high capacity," says Jim Freeze, senior vice president of marketing and alliances at BelAir Networks, who also happens to live in the Boston area.

However, Reeve says the legwork is still underway. "I won't hang radio one until we talk to the community leaders and residents," she says. After the announcement was made this week, she says the discussion began in earnest with the first formal meetings. But she says there's still much to do.

"We're anxious not to pre-suppose anything, especially in under-served areas," she says. Reeve believes they have a lot to learn about what's needed from community groups, both what the nonprofit can expect and what the community at large expects from the network. "The neighborhood pilot is a tremendous learning ground," she says.

While the nonprofit will eventually own and manage the network, Boston Wi-Fi has no network operations center (NOC) for now, and won't build one until they've done a lot more. That's assuming they don't outsource the whole thing to a third party, which is also a possibility.

What if they build a network — or even just a small pilot hotzone — and no one comes to use it? Would the city back away from plans for citywide Wi-Fi? Reeve says the commitment to that type of deployment is strong, and she thinks that possibility, however negligible, would be something they can address with more communication and educational outreach. "That [outcome] says to me we haven't got the formula for those individuals yet," she says. "We'd want to recalibrate for the next pilot."

While the services from citywide Wi-Fi would mostly involve straight-up Internet access, the communication possibilities offered for some are enormous. Reeve gives the example of elderly folks who need to make a payment somewhere being able to avoid getting a ride or taking the T public transport trains downtown when they can pay at home. That's something that isn't available to everyone today. (We didn't get a chance to discuss if the city intends to also help get laptops into the hands of those citizens caught on the wrong side of the "digital divide".)

Eventually, the possibilities of the network could also extend to things like VoIP and other "things we're not smart enough to figure out yet," says Reeve.

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 nonprofit 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. The nonprofit will provide wholesale access to the citywide network when it's finished, so other wireless ISPs can offer services. As yet, there's still no timetable on the issuing of an RFP, nor on the completion of the Roxbury hotzone, let alone when to expect citywide service.

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