Wireless in the city

One city's technology, business and community leaders say a citywide Wi-Fi network is not only essential to the city's growth and prosperity, but can also create new revenue for businesses.

BOSTON -- More than just a convenient technological innovation, the development of a comprehensive, citywide Wi-Fi network is essential to the sustained economic and intellectual growth of the city of Boston, its residents and businesses.

Or so that was the consensus at last week's Wi-Fi Summit held at the Museum of Science. Organized at the behest of Boston City Councilor John Tobin, the gathering of local political, business and community leaders aimed to shine a spotlight on the potential benefits of deploying a wireless network in the city and its implications for Boston's future.

Boston took the first steps toward citywide municipal Wi-Fi last week with the activation of wireless networks in its Roxbury and Roslindale neighborhoods. The networks, built with equipment from Colubris Networks Inc. and support from consultancies Single Digits Inc. and Ascio Wireless, will be provided by the city and financed by advertising placed on sign-on Web pages.

"Wireless technology has the potential to make our city more vibrant and accessible," said Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, addressing the attendees at the opening of the community forum. "We must work together to make Wi-Fi technology available to businesses and residents in every corner of our city."

During a series of discussions that followed, panelists agreed that in order for Boston to continue living up to its reputation as a leader in the fields of education, biotechnology and health care, the city must stay ahead of the technology curve by establishing and maintaining a wireless network accessible to all its citizens.

"The goal is for Boston to be a global leader -- not a regional, not a state, not a national, but a global leader -- amongst peers," said panelist Jock Gill, president of Penfield Gill Inc., a media communications consulting firm. "Boston's competitive fitness in regard to cultural, political and economic issues will in fact be determined by the quality of its communications infrastructure."

Among the benefits highlighted by the panelists, a citywide Wi-Fi network could open previously untapped markets to many local companies and organizations, allowing them access to new customers and new streams of revenue. A wirelessly connected Boston would also attract many new businesses, as well as some of the world's brightest minds to live and work in the city.

But Boston merchants wouldn't be the only ones to gain.

Panelist Nyvia Colon, technology director of the nonprofit Madison Park Development Corp., a nonprofit group dedicated to improving the quality of life in Boston's Roxbury neighborhood, said a citywide Wi-Fi network would be a boon to Boston's poorest citizens.

Many low-income residents cannot afford commercial Internet access from area providers like Verizon Communications Inc. and Comcast Corp., whose monthly access fees can run as high as $60 a month. Colon contended that a Wi-Fi network could help bridge the "digital divide" by providing a low-cost alternative.

Of course, deploying and maintaining such a robust Wi-Fi network is not without its challenges, as other U.S. cities have discovered.

One of those challenges is deciding on a deployment model, be it a municipal, taxpayer-funded effort -- such as the city of Philadelphia has attempted -- or, as most of the panelists preferred, a "public-private" partnership between the city and the private sector.

Unfortunately, the difficulties don't end there. As the panelists noted, there are also federal regulations to contend with, as well as powerful business interests that must be confronted, many of which will not cede lucrative business to a municipality's Wi-Fi network without a fight.

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However, Doug Schremp, chief technology officer of BTS Partners Inc., a Boston technology consultancy firm and one of the sponsors of the Wi-Fi Summit, said he believes that Boston is uniquely qualified to handle any roadblocks that may lie ahead.

"I think the problems other cities are having can be avoided here in Boston," Schremp said. "Boston has a vast infrastructure of assets that the city can build upon," he continued, noting that the city is already dotted with Wi-Fi hot spots.

Officials said the Wi-Fi Summit is just the beginning of talks regarding how best to proceed with a citywide wireless network. No firm plan of action was established, but similar discussions are expected in the near future.

Barney Carney, a consultant at networking firm Technology Bridge of Boston and a city resident, was in attendance for the summit and was glad to see that a dialogue on Wi-Fi was under way.

"The devil is in the details, but having a citywide discussion about wireless access is a good icebreaker."

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