The trouble with hooking up

Free municipal wireless sounds like a great idea for Boston or any city that has already invested heavily in high-tech infrastructure. Too bad there’s no more money to pay for the last link of the chain.

(Illustration by Jude Buffum)
By Hiawatha Bray
August 2, 2009

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Brian Worobey stands on the roof of the Tobin Community Center in Boston peering through a telescopic sight, the sort that fits snugly atop a sniper rifle. Spread out before him is a target-rich environment: the town houses of Mission Main, the Alice Taylor homes, the Franklin Square Apartments -- residential space for thousands of Bostonians. From where he is standing, Worobey figures he can hit them all with radio waves capable of carrying Internet data.

The sniper scope is to help him spot a work crew perched on the roof of the Beatty Hall library at the Wentworth Institute of Technology a quarter mile away. That crew and Worobey’s are doing the same thing: installing digital radio devices to wirelessly connect computers in homes and businesses to the Internet. Two electricians are setting up a big white box festooned with antennas, wiring it to the city’s fiber-optic network.

Worobey points southwest toward Mission Hill, another prime target. “We’ve got the hill covered reasonably well,” he says. “When we light this up, we’ll get this whole area covered.” This box -- it’s one of about 100 wireless networking devices that his nonprofit has installed in Boston -- is yet another step toward Worobey’s goal: a city where Internet access flows in the air and where it might eventually carry the same price -- zero.As chief executive and president of OpenAirBoston, Worobey has spent the past three years working toward that goal. In 2006, when he was vice president of information systems at the Museum of Science, he was on a task force established by Mayor Tom Menino to figure out exactly how to set up such a network. The task force report, issued in July of that year, figured the job would take 12 to 18 months and cost $16 million to $20 million. By now, you should be able to stand on any corner, anywhere in town, whip out a wireless-equipped laptop, and get on the city network. Try it in Jamaica Plain or Southie, Allston or Back Bay, and you’re in for a disappointment. But try it on Westland Avenue in the Fenway district, or Warren Street in Roxbury, and you’ll see that the efforts of OpenAirBoston haven’t been entirely fruitless. In about 2 square miles out of Boston’s 48, less than 5 percent of the city, you’ll find wireless capability, up to 1 million bits per second, that the nonprofit manages. That’s not much for YouTube videos. But it’s plenty for e-mailing a client or researching homework.

it turns out that building a wireless network that provides coverage to all of Boston is going to take more time -- not more money, though that point is moot since the city doesn’t have it budgeted -- than the mayor’s task force predicted. In fact, this kind of project has thwarted government leaders and technologists in cities from coast to coast.

Consider Philadelphia. Back in 2004, then-mayor John Street announced a plan to provide the entire city with wireless Internet access so cheap that even a poor man could log on. Many Philadelphians, the reasoning went, couldn’t afford to pay the $30 or more per month charged by telephone or cable companies for high-speed Internet access, or even the $10 a month (on top of the cost of a land line) for slower dial-up service. And without access, poor citizens missed out on the information and knowledge that could help them out of poverty.

The city didn’t have the money needed to build such a network -- at least $10 million to start, it was reported in the news at the time. So in 2005, Philadelphia struck a deal with EarthLink, a major provider of Internet services based in Atlanta. EarthLink would pay to build a low-cost network and stay on to manage it, charging users $7 a month. The company soon made similar deals with other cities, including San Francisco and Houston, and mayors across the nation were dreaming up plans to hook up their own towns. Including Mayor Menino in Boston.

It soon became clear that business people and politicians alike had underestimated the difficulties of building a municipal network, especially in urban areas. “That was a period of launch by press release,” recalls Boston software entrepreneur Pam Reeve, a founder of OpenAirBoston. “It was going to be done in 12 minutes with no cost.” To set up wireless service at home, you do little more than plug a router into your Internet connection -- the modem, which connects to a cable or telephone line -- and switch it on. The Internet is now available to laptops and other devices with wireless receivers. How much harder could it be to extend the model to an entire city? Just hang routers from lampposts or off the sides of buildings and fire them up.

But wireless technology was designed for small spaces. Its digital radios transmit data only about 300 feet, and it turns out that buildings and other realities of the urban landscape challenge signal strength, so covering a city requires a lot more gear than even experts initially expected. In 2007, EarthLink abandoned the San Francisco and Houston networks; last June, it bailed on Philadelphia, too, selling to Network Acquisition Co., a group of private investors. Derek Pew, chief executive of the group, estimates that EarthLink spent about $24 million building a network that covers 80 percent of the city’s households. Yet even at $7 a month, at the time of the sale, no more than 7,000 residents subscribed to the network, in a city of 1.4 million.

Network Acquisition stopped charging residents and usage soared to 150,000 visitors per month. The company is now in talks with city government and private businesses, hoping to convince them to pay to use the network; this would subsidize public use. “The cost of maintaining the consumer portion of a wireless network once it’s built is negligible,” Pew says. But without paying customers, Pew still doesn’t know how the company will finance its operations once it has burned through its initial capital.

The Boston plan was as ambitious as Philly’s, but with fewer illusions. Nobody expected a commercial outfit like EarthLink to build and run the network. Instead, says Boston’s chief information officer, Bill Oates, OpenAirBoston would raise money from wealthy donors and foundations to cover the initial costs. “The city’s role was to help facilitate the build-out of that network by using the city’s assets,” says Oates.

The most important of those assets -- a city-owned fiber-optic communications network -- didn’t exist at the time. But it does now. After years of relying on a hodgepodge of network technologies leased from Verizon and other telecommunications providers, the city launched with little fanfare a $4 million program to create its own network in 2007. “The fiber is ours,” says Oates. “We either installed it ourselves or acquired it.” Today, the network reaches about 125 city buildings -- schools, libraries, police stations, and firehouses. It extends to every neighborhood, and there’s enough excess data capacity to support municipal wireless.

OpenAirBoston, which didn’t install but now helps to run wireless at City Hall, launched its public program in Grove Hall in Roxbury, with a plan to start offering wireless in June 2007. “It took us longer than expected, and it turned out to be a lot more difficult than we expected,” Oates says. Grove Hall wasn’t wired until the spring of 2008.

At first, thousands of locals signed up for the service. Why not? It was free. Shermel Darget, a hip-hop artist who performs under the name Storie Tella, wanted online access to communicate with fans, but couldn’t afford it. “Comcast, they want like $50, $60 a month,” says Darget. “That’s too much.” So she signed up for the city service.

But the service isn’t free anymore, and user numbers have dropped off, according to Sandy Bendremer of Galaxy Internet Services, the Internet access provider based in Newton Upper Falls that manages the service for OpenAirBoston. The fee of $9.95 a month in Grove Hall after a 30-day free trial is considerably less than phone or cable companies charge for Internet access, but it’s still too much for many. Subscriber numbers are “not anywhere near where they were when it was free,” Bendremer says, only “in the hundreds.” He thinks that this is partly due to a lack of public awareness, since neither Galaxy nor the city has spent any money on advertising. But it’s clear that, as in Philadelphia, many Bostonians don’t think an Internet connection is worth paying for.

“We don’t know if people don’t want to pay $9.95 a month,” says OpenAirBoston’s Worobey, “or that we haven’t done the job to systematically follow through with education and training.”

After grove hall, nobody believed anymore in a rapid rollout for citywide wireless. And it’s hard to see how such a network will ever pay for itself, when consumers won’t cough up a few dollars a month. But Oates and Worobey aren’t giving up. If they can’t solve their problems outright, they figure they can at least shrink them a little.

Start with build-out costs. Oates explains that the Grove Hall network used expensive heavy-duty hardware. Each wireless router cost $2,000 to $2,500. But hardware’s gotten cheaper. The router that Worobey mounted on the Tobin Community Center cost $1,500. In addition, the gear now being installed uses a technology called mesh networking that allows a smaller number of rooftop and lamppost routers to cover a much larger area and to reach, using smaller, indoor devices, some places -- like the back corners of large apartment buildings -- outdoor routers can’t serve. But it relies on customers who are willing (and can afford) to upgrade. For a one-time $40 fee, users can install a device that will improve their Internet reception. The device also connects to other computers in the area, acting like a miniature version of the rooftop router. If enough users purchase these, they can help spread wireless Internet service over more of the city at little extra cost to OpenAirBoston.

Mesh networking is already proving its worth, but its viability as a money saver for OpenAirBoston is still unknown. The free service in Fenway and Mission Hill is currently in its trial phase. OpenAirBoston has given away about 20 networked routers that allow 120 people in those neighborhoods to connect to the Internet, and that number is growing, Worobey says. The goal of universal wireless probably depends on how many homeowners, tenants, or building management companies buy the $40 devices. “It’s going to be impossible to get inside some of these big brick buildings without engaging the customer base,” says Worobey. “The more people are willing to help carry the signal, the deeper into the city we can go.”

though nobody talks anymore about a rapid citywide rollout, there are bright spots, like the partnership with DotWell, an alliance of the Codman Square Health Center and the Dorchester House Multi-Service Center. Even before the city launched its program, DotWell received a $60,000 grant from the Boston Foundation to deliver wireless access to sections of Dorchester. During planning, DotWell organizers learned about the citywide initiative. “What we were trying to do was to learn from other cities and the city of Boston,” says Bill Walczak, CEO of the Codman Square Health Center.

What they mostly learned was what not to do. With help from Open AirBoston, DotWell has begun deployment of its network, using the cheaper mesh networking technology. They hope to cover about 1 of Boston’s 48 square miles by the end of the year. “We want to be part of a citywide solution,” says Walczak, “but our goal is Dorchester.”

Ubiquitous wireless, especially if it relies on mesh networking technology, only works if people use it. The evidence so far is that they will -- if it’s free. Users fled the Grove Hall service when Galaxy began charging users. But when new owners took over the moribund EarthLink network in Philadelphia and began giving away the service, sign-ons soared. These days, the Philly network has more than 20 times the number who had once paid to use it.

The trouble is, Internet bandwidth isn’t free. Neither is the operation and maintenance of a citywide network. Somebody, somewhere has to pay. If not the users, or the city, then who?

“We’re still in the middle of trying to figure that one out,” says Oates. As part of the 2009 stimulus package, the federal government has set aside $7.2 billion to subsidize the building of broadband networks. Oates is working to ensure that some of that cash comes to Boston. He says he’d use the money for wireless hardware. After that, Oates and Worobey say, they hope local businesses and philanthropists will come through with the cash to keep the system running, perhaps supplemented by revenues from on-screen sponsorship and public television-style fund-raising events. “I’m wary of any business model that makes us look like the phone company,” Worobey says. There’s not much chance of that; phone companies turn a profit. City wireless services still haven’t figured out how to do that, and Worobey doesn’t even want to try. He hopes to run an urban wireless network for half a million people with no fees, no tax money -- nothing but donations. It’s a long shot, even for a guy with a sniper scope. ª

Hiawatha Bray writes about technology for the Globe. Send comments to

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