IN 2006, Mayor Thomas M. Menino's Wireless Task Force recommended an ambitious plan that would use WiFi technology to accomplish three goals: provide wireless connectivity that would foster business innovation and economic development; make Internet access and its benefits available to all Bostonians; and use wireless to improve access to and delivery of city services.
Today, these laudable goals remain the focus of Boston's wireless nonprofit, openairboston.net. While it's true that the original timetable set 2008 as a goal for citywide wireless, the rapidly evolving nature of wireless technology and business models has forced a reexamination.
As many cities have now learned, a corporate-driven, one-size-fits-all model for wireless may not provide the most effective solution. Well-publicized difficulties with such municipal WiFi plans have caused many to regard universal wireless models with skepticism. Yet at openairboston.net, we regard these difficulties as validation. Rather than throw millions of dollars at a citywide solution that might well fail, openairboston.net has employed discrete investments in small-scale rollouts that test technology against neighborhood needs to produce flexible systems that teach us how to do wireless right.
When we threw the switch on its new wireless network in Grove Hall and Dudley Square earlier this spring, we bridged the digital divide to bring wireless to a 1.1 square-mile neighborhood in which many citizens had not previously enjoyed Internet access. This relatively small-scale rollout teaches us a lot about the differences between theoretical and real urban wireless systems, including their configuration and their pricing model. In-kind donations of products and services, as well as the contributions of numerous individuals, helped to make this possible. This strong level of community and financial support would be considered substantial for any year-old nonprofit.
Now, openairboston.net will take the next step - using wireless in a second pilot network, this time focusing on parts of the Fenway and Mission Hill neighborhoods. Our goals here will be to test the limits of WiFi technology, to increase Internet connectivity, and to harness the intellectual capital of universities and researchers to create a Wireless Innovation Center that spurs entrepreneurial creativity and economic development
The technology employed in this second pilot will differ from that used in Grove Hall and Dudley Square. The reason for this change is that as we deploy on a small scale, we are constantly learning. In Fenway and Mission Hill, we want to test whether mesh networking and open-source software will provide a more economical solution to urban wireless, delivering more impact, involvement, and coverage for a smaller investment. Similar open-platform approaches have been attempted, but not with the commitment or scale that exists in Boston.
If the pace of the rollout for wireless in Boston is slower than in other cities - and slower than originally envisioned by openairboston.net - this may well prove positive in the long run. By employing a model in which we rollout, test, modify, and adopt solutions on a small scale, we balance our investment in wireless connectivity with fiscal responsibility.
It is also important to consider that an incremental rollout of wireless will allow us to approach potential funders not with a theoretical plan for how citywide wireless might happen, but with documented evidence of how various technologies and approaches can be combined to deliver the best, most economical service possible. At a time in which the economy is uncertain and in which people have gambled and lost on urban wireless, we believe that funders will find our approach to wireless more attractive.
As the journey to a wireless Boston continues, it is critical to remember that we are creating new models of urban communication. Changes in direction are inevitable. But if we can minimize the financial and organizational impact of these bumps in the road, we can create a system that works better and more economically for all of us, and build a wireless infrastructure that enables Boston to retain its position as a center of economic and educational innovation.
Brian Worobey is chief information officer at the Museum of Science and an openairboston.net adviser.