Free public Wi-Fi in Harvard Square launched by businesses, city

As home to one of the world’s top universities, Harvard Square normally hosts the exchange of ideas, but can now host the exchange of data, too. Last week a number of businesses and organizations partnered to launch free public Wi-Fi for users within a half mile of the square in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“Wireless in Harvard Square is really going to add to the ambiance, to the access and to the enjoyment of Harvard Square,” said E. Denise Simmons, mayor of Cambridge.

After she flipped the oversized, cartoon-style switch, a Harvard alumnus who returned for his 50th reunion was possibly the network’s first official user, even though the network had actually been operational for about 24 hours prior to the official launch.

Logging on just seconds after the launch, the passerby accessed his class reunion Web site using his smartphone.

Anaptyx, the company that installed the network, is able to monitor how many users are connected to each node. At launch more than 150 users in the half mile coverage area were using the network. Users connect through routers by Meraki, a company that has done similar deployments around the world. Most notable is in San Francisco where, according to the company, 90,000 people have connected to the test bed network, Free the Net.

The network in Cambridge is not password protected and users are only required to click through a splash page before surfing for free. To cut down on long-term use of the network, the splash page displays every 12 hours, forcing users to click through to get access again, and video streaming and file sharing are discouraged. Nevertheless users will experience 2M bps (bits per second) download speeds and up to 1M bps upload transmission, according to Anaptyx.

The wireless units are not much larger than a traditional wireless router. There are 33 of them scattered throughout the area; half mounted indoors and half mounted outdoors. The 2.4 GHz units are waterproof and use a 7 decibel omnidirectional antenna.

The Harvard Square Business Association drove the project while working with the city of Cambridge, HarvardUniversity and other local businesses. The Executive Director of the Harvard Square Business Association Denise Jillson said in a statement, “The research and installation period took a little longer than anticipated, but the delay worked to our advantage as the technology kept improving.” The actual construction and deployment of the network happened in just one week with Anaptyx meeting the deadline of having the network ready for Harvard’s 357th commencement.

“We signed the contract last Wednesday and it is Wednesday a week later and the network is up,” said Anaptyx CEO Kenneth Carnesi, Jr. on launch day. The Harvard Square project is the first city implementation for Anaptyx as it traditionally outfits apartment and condominium complexes.

According to Jillson, the Harvard Square Business Association paid just under US$20,000 for the hardware and DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) lines to launch the free Wi-Fi. It will continue to fund the DSL connections and add more if needed. The businesses that host the nodes pay for the electricity, which is anticipated to cost less than $20 a year.

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