Boston sees new services driving city WiFi

Boston’s vision of municipal Wi-Fi sees city, university andhospital fiber networks bypassing the major service providers andlaying the foundation for free Internet access, proponents saidthis week.

Mayor Thomas Menino on Monday announced the recommendations of awireless task force he formed in February. It called on the city tofind a nonprofit organization to oversee the building of a citywide wireless network for broadbandInternet access, then own and operate it.

“The most important thing is to lower the cost of this kind ofservice,” said Rick Burnes, a general partner at Boston-areaventure capital firm Charles River Ventures who helped lead thetask force.

Public Wi-Fi can provide the “last mile” ofconnectivity to homes and businesses, but the major providers ofbroadband, such as Verizon Communications Inc. and Comcast Corp.,own the lines that typically connect that part of the network tothe Internet backbone, he said.

“If you’re going to provide Wi-Fi or any broadband services,they get the lion’s share of the dollar, at a very high price,”Burnes said.

Instead of connecting its wireless routers to that commercial”backhaul” network, Boston wants to form a network out of existingfiber owned by the city and local hospitals and universities.Cutting out Verizon and Comcast would cut costs enough to makefree, advertising-supported basic Internet services feasible,Burnes said. The nonprofit running the network would open it up tothird-party ISPs (Internet service providers) rather than offerservice itself. Incumbent carriers would be welcome to act as ISPson the wireless system.

Unlike in San Francisco, where free Google Inc. service isenvisioned as slower than the Earthlink Inc. subscription product,all the ISPs using the Boston would offer the same speed. What willcommand a premium price will be innovative services, Burnesbelieves.

The cost is hard to pin down at this point, but the wholeproject might cost about $10 million, Burnes said. Though a fewhundred thousand dollars have already been raised, he acknowledgedthere is a long way to go. On Monday, Pam Reeve, who was a memberof the task force and once led transaction processing companyLightbridge Inc., volunteered to develop partnerships and raisefunds.

Boston, a compact city with several universities, is betterpositioned than most cities to leverage fiber owned by the city andother partners, said Craig Settles, a wireless consultant, in Oakland, California. But these resources couldbe part of the solution in many places, he said. The key is to becreative and look at all the possibilities, Settles said.

The city’s funding model is also a good one, Settles said. Thereare federal grants available for purposes such as emergencypreparedness, and charitable groups such as health organizationsmight help fund a wireless network in exchange for being able touse it for their own needs.

“It is a model that is in its infancy, but it has viabilitybecause it makes business sense,” Settles said.

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