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A free Wi-Fi network blankets Newbury Street, a project created and championed by Michael Oh (left), founder of Tech Superpowers Inc. City Councilor John Tobin wants to extend free wireless access across Boston. ''Wi-Fi seems a great way to bridge the digital divide,'' Tobin says, ''to get the Internet into lower-income neighborhoods.''
A free Wi-Fi network blankets Newbury Street, a project created and championed by Michael Oh (left), founder of Tech Superpowers Inc. City Councilor John Tobin wants to extend free wireless access across Boston. ''Wi-Fi seems a great way to bridge the digital divide,'' Tobin says, ''to get the Internet into lower-income neighborhoods.'' (Globe Staff Photo / Lane Turner; Photo / Spencer Leonard)

The Year of Living Wirelessly

Boston is on the brink of a revolution-a wireless world where people in parks and on sidewalks, on subways and in restaurants, everywhere and anywhere, are plugged in to the Internet. Are we ready for a Wi-Fi city?

A gentleman, maybe in his early 70s, sits near the front window of Espresso Royale Caffe, a noisy, youthful coffeehouse near Symphony Hall. He drains his cup and folds his Wall Street Journal. He rises and then, just before pushing out into the street, stops and asks a college-age man: "What's up with all the laptops?"

It's a Wednesday afternoon, the usual scene. Lattes in doubled paper cups. Hip-hop on the stereo. Caffeine addicts of every ilk. The laptops, perhaps seven or eight in total, are congregated near the wall, close to the electrical outlets, their users mesmerized. Faces shimmer in the LCD glow. Four students from the Berklee College of Music discuss ideas for album covers over a notebook computer. A businessman dashes off e-mail to the home office in Burlington. A landscaper creates a personal website. And a Northeastern University law student named Olegario Perales concentrates on his Compaq, earplugs in place, his back to the room. He's isolated, oblivious to everything outside his computer.

"I can't get work done at home," Perales explains when I tap him on the shoulder. "Being at home, where I have a workstation, my desk, I can't focus. I think today you spend so much time by yourself. But you need human presence. You want to be around people. But with the Wi-Fi, I can also work, do research, look up cases. Anywhere could be a workstation."

Wi-Fi. It's the latest techno-term you can't escape, that "-fi" echoing the fiction of "sci-fi" and the fidelity of "hi-fi." (The term was coined in 1999 by a trade group that became the Wi-Fi Alliance.) The technology allows laptops and PDAs to connect to a network without wires, from hundreds of feet away. And it has surged into our digital - and our non- digital - lives with a speed that can't be measured in bytes per second. Upwards of 10 million homes in the United States are hooked up with Wi-Fi, and by end of the year, an estimated 130,000 hotspots, as Wi-Fi access points intended for public use are called, will exist around the country. They've already sprouted everywhere from libraries in Austin, Texas, to a McDonald's parking lot in Lisbon.

Hotels, airports, stadiums, municipal buildings, hospitals, libraries, planes, trains - our entire environment is being "unwired." Wi-Fi is connecting whole neighborhoods and public parks, like New York City's Bryant Park, creating so-called hotzones and hotcities. The Boston Foundation, a charitable group, has given the Museum of Science $25,000 to study unwiring swaths of the city, particularly parks and open spaces. Next month, civic and technology leaders plan to meet at a Wireless Boston summit to discuss the idea.

Can a hotworld be far off? Will we someday be able to access our digital selves from anywhere just by starting our laptop or our cellphone or even our car? Will information about you and me and everyone else just float in the air all the time? And do we want to live in such a world?

Perales is on his way. His demeanor is more poet than lawyer: deep-set dark eyes, a gentle voice, the laid-back manner of his native California. He bought his laptop last fall, when he started law school, and now takes it everywhere. He uses it to pay his bills, e-mail his friends back home, settle the occasional bet about who that guy was in that movie. He and his fellow Wi-Fi-ers are untethered from the tyranny of location. For example, Perales bought his law books during a layover in Las Vegas.

Of course, there is a paradox: With our untethering, we are also becoming slaves to our computers like never before. Anywhere is a workstation. "My laptop is a necessity, and I feel uneasy without it," Perales says somewhat sheepishly, adding, "And yet, when I don't have my laptop, which is not that often, I feel a little bit freer."

Wirelessness is changing the way people interact, as we remove the cable from the wall and coil it around ourselves -man and machine, moving as one, perpetually connected to each other and to that increasing portion of our lives that is stored online, from bank statements to baby pictures to Beastie Boys albums. For better and worse, we live through our laptops.

Life is not only on the go these days, but to go. Mobility is power. And nowadays, you can be just about anywhere (at least in the developed world) and work or play games or send an e-mail. It is as simple as finding an access point at a cafe, a library, or even the apartment next door and then turning on your Wi-Fi-enabled laptop or PDA. A radio signal will connect you to the local network and, through it, to the Internet.

If City Councilor John Tobin's vision for a Wi-Fi Boston comes true - Tobin is the point man for the upcoming wireless summit - you won't even need to search out a hotspot. The hotspot will be all around you. You could be good to go from, say, a park bench in the Public Garden.

Late last summer, Tobin, whose district includes Jamaica Plain, went to the house of his constituent George Fifield, founder and director of the Boston Cyberarts Festival, which kicked off on Friday. At one point, the two men needed to look something up. When Fifield simply opened his laptop, which was sitting on the coffee table in the living room, Tobin was stunned. Immediately, he began asking questions.

"'How can we make Boston a wireless city?' I wondered," Tobin recalls. "Wi-Fi seems a great way to bridge the digital divide, to get the Internet into lower-income neighborhoods." He sees benefits to education, commerce, and civic engagement. A Wi-Fi network, Tobin says, will make a better community.

An MIT experiment with neighborhood websites suggests he's right. Keith Hampton, an assistant professor of sociology, runs a university project called E-Neighbors, which provided interactive websites to several Boston-area neighborhoods and studied the effects. "If you provide a neighborhood with e-mail lists, they begin to e-mail each other about things like the plumber and town meetings and neighborhood-watch-type things," he explains. "People leak bits about themselves." They have a better awareness of one another.

Max Grasso and Jennifer Brody were not looking to foster community when they set up a wireless network in their bucolic Lincoln neighborhood three years ago. The tech-savvy husband and wife just wanted high-speed Internet access at home. So they bought servers and antennas, arranged for a high-speed Internet connection as a small company would, recruited their neighbors, and constructed a Wi-Fi network. A kind of Wi-Fi co-op. Today, companies offer high-speed broadband residential service, but almost all of Grasso and Brody's neighbors have stayed on the homespun network, each paying about $35 a month. "Sure, it's changed the way we interact," Brody says. "I feel like I know my neighbors much better. There's a real sense of community. We often communicate through e-mail, because now I have everyone's e-mail address - addresses I provided in the first place."

Tobin's plan owes much of its inspiration to initiatives like Grasso and Brody's and one in Spokane, Washington, where 100 square blocks have been unwired, offering two hours of free Internet access per day. Larger municipal projects are under consideration in several cities, including Las Vegas and Philadelphia. And the cost of these type of projects is peanuts - an estimated $10 million to unwire Philadelphia, for example - compared with the billions invested by traditional telecoms lobbying forcefully against municipal wireless networks.

The irony for Boston, and the difficulty for Tobin, is that Boston was so ahead of the curve that the city has laid miles and miles of cable and fiber, reducing the demand for a wide-coverage wireless network. Wireless networks help most in developing markets, says Anshu Dua, a local wireless industry analyst, who cites several hotcities in China.

Still, it's creeping into Boston's public space. All 28 locations of the Boston Public Library have wireless setups, and according to Michael Lynch, the cable guy at City Hall, officials have been experimenting with Wi-Fi in many of Boston's municipal buildings. Mary Hart, director of management information systems for the city of Cambridge, is monitoring hotspots in municipal buildings, such as City Hall. Recently, the MBTA announced plans to install Wi-Fi in several T stations, including Government Center and Downtown Crossing. Most of the local colleges, particularly MIT and Tufts, are extensively unwired. The wireless boom is benefiting security companies like Newbury Networks of Boston, network architects like Airpath Wireless of Waltham, and product designers like Ambient Devices of Cambridge.

The week after meeting with Fifield, Tobin persuaded his fellow councilors to explore the idea of a citywide Wi-Fi network. Since he broached the subject, he says, the public has deluged him with e-mails and phone calls of support. He's also impressed with how many of his colleagues are intrigued by the idea. They want to know more.

"We have created the technology that not only enenables us to change our basic nature, but that is making such change all but inevitable," Sven Birkerts of Arlington wrote in his 1994 book of essays, The Gutenberg Elegies. Wi-Fi, like the printing press, is one of those nature-changing innovations that will redefine our relationships with one another and with our world, a so-called disruptive technology.

Wi-Fi "should fundamentally change the way you work and the way you think," says Michael Maggio, CEO of Newbury Networks. "But our brains don't want to do that quickly. There are a lot of really new things that are about to start happening, and it's going to happen really fast. Three or four years from now, we'll start to think what are the cool applications that are different from what we use our wired computers for."

Newbury Networks employs a location-mapping system for its wireless security system, and Maggio suggests other location-based possibilities: At an airport departure gate, you turn on your laptop and your browser automatically displays your flight status; at a concert, an offer to download a digital recording of the show appears on your hand-held computer or one of the new Wi-Fi-enabled multi-platform cellphones. Maggio's favorite, Wi-Fi dating: At an unwired bar, everyone's hand-held Wi-Fi device broadcasts personal information for everyone else to peruse. Or, more precisely, for everyone else's computer to peruse. "Imagine saying to your computer, `Find a match in the room with the following criteria: X, Y, and Z,'" Maggio says. "So based on where you are, you start to have different content. That would be cool."

Michael Oh, founder of Tech Superpowers Inc., a wireless consulting company headquartered in the Back Bay, has begun tinkering with these location-specific ideas. Oh has long been a driving force in the Boston Wi-Fi community. He is a member of the Boston Wireless Advocacy Group, which meets monthly to discuss developments in mobile computing, and in early 2002 he spearheaded the implementation of NewburyOpen.net, a free Wi-Fi network with 15 hotspots up and down Newbury Street, from the restaurant Sonsie to the Newbury Guest House.

"Our interest in setting up NewburyOpen.net was somewhat self-motivated," Oh says when I meet him one recent morning for breakfast at Trident Booksellers & Cafe, NewburyOpen.net's first location. (Two out of seven customers that morning had laptops open.) "We have this network around our office. It obviously helps market our company. Visibility. People might see it and then come in and buy a laptop. But also it's a social experiment: Push the idea of ubiquitous access out there, making it accessible in the local community."

Oh is one of those benevolent techno-geek entrepreneurs who, in their heart, believe that technology can, must, and will benefit humanity. In a Hollywood movie, he'd probably be eaten by his laptop, but in this Boston cafe, his glimmering Apple PowerBook is an interactive prop. He whips it out from his bike-messenger bag.

"When it comes to community building, Wi-Fi technology itself is not the thing," Oh says while his computer revs up. "It's just a service. The content is the thing. So we've started inserting content into the network and developed the Boston Music Project."

He clicks on iTunes, the Apple music program. Without any prompting, a new song list, titled Boston Music Project, appears, as if his computer has hooked into a radio station. In a way, it has. The Boston Music Project is a joint effort with WFNX radio station; Q Division Records, a recording studio in Somerville; and Fenway Recordings, a local record label. Anyone who logs on to NewburyOpen.net at select hotspots can listen to any of about 1,000 songs by local bands. All free of charge. Put simply, it is local content available only in certain locations.

That's the new frontier of living wirelessly. Right now, we flip the switch and our computers go out onto the Internet. But soon the tables will turn. We'll flip the switch and the Internet will find us. Future content providers will counterbalance the technology's very essence - Wi-Fi means mobility, after all, as the Wi-Fi Alliance proudly proclaims on its website - and make your physical location relevant. Although your Wi-Fi enabled laptop means you can be anywhere, soon certain applications will ask you to be somewhere specific. Your place in the universe will still matter.

At South Station, one of Tech Superpowers's other projects is up and running. The South Station Wi-Fi Bubble is not your typical hotspot. Sure, your Wi-Fi-enabled laptop or PDA will find the "Bubble" - for free, even - but you won't get very far. That's because the Bubble network denies you access to the World Wide Web. It's kind of like having five bars on your cellphone but only being able to call the people in your building. To send e-mail or to Google someone you met that afternoon, you must pay for the station's other public network.

But if you connect to the Bubble's network, you'll find a fascinating mini-world. It's loaded with original content about South Station: miscellaneous station facts, a little history, stories about the shoeshine man and the bookstore owner. There is also a bulletin board to let users post comments, questions, rants, or raves.

But - and here's the experimental twist - you can't read any of the Bubble's content unless you are inside the station.

"You have to think outside the box to understand what it is," Oh says. "People tell us they are frustrated because they can't get to the outside world. Then they come back and say, `I see what you guys are doing.' Basically, we're leveraging the technology to foster a South Station community."

One poster on the Bubble's bulletin board crystallized the whole idea: "The inverse of the Internet - you need technology to find the Bubble, but you also need to travel to a physical location to experience it. Something to think about on the train ride to New York City."

Birkerts, the essayist, also wanted to think about things when he rode the train to New York one day last winter. He wanted to ponder the gray New England coastline, to brood on all that he saw outside and all that was taking place internally. A modern-day Alexis de Tocqueville. "What I found instead," Birkerts tells me when we grab coffee together at a Starbucks near his home, "was a packed car, everyone talking on their cellphones, everyone on their laptops. It was an environment of completely distracted high-speed chatter interaction. I was hearing about 10 conversations at once that people were having, and I fell into a funk about it all. Not one of them was a reflective, relaxed conversation. They were communications."

The promise of computing, of course, is communication. Instant messaging and BlackBerries and Internet phones. So why does Birkerts spit communication back in our face, as if the very word is dirty? What is being lost in this constant chatter? Is the ubiquity of communication and machine-based contact erasing our notion of individuality, as Birkerts later suggests in our conversation?

The answers may not reveal themselves for decades, if ever, because most likely we won't even realize what is being lost. Technology surges exponentially, change compounds like interest, and if we are to thrive - and maintain sanity - we have to accept it. Even Birkerts, a proud technology resister who still writes in longhand, has acquiesced to e-mail, mostly a consequence of his job editing Boston University's literary journal Agni: "The simple needs of reality partially overpowered me."

But there are simpler needs, needs that do not include the ability to interface with a wireless network at all times. They demand the face-to-face exchange of ideas and desires. It's the hello to the person next to you at the cafe, the flicker of acknowledgment, the human glimmer of hope that maybe we'll see someone we know or have a chance meeting, Perales, the law student, says. You're not going to get that locked in a room by yourself. We crave the unique, indescribable satisfaction of physical connection, of the spark. So although the train to New York can seem like a hurtling Tower of Babel, surely somewhere amid all that cacophony, two people have found a quiet space - a bubble, if you will - for a reflective, relaxed conversation and, in so doing, have put technology back in its place. The laptop and all its applications become tools again, accessories, objects that are part of our lives but remain outside of them.

Which helps explain what's up with all the laptops. Their owners love the mobility that Wi-Fi allows, because it means they go out in public. "If you really wanted to get work done, why would you come to a loud cafe?" Perales asks, glancing around at the laptoppers at Espresso Royale before answering his own question. "To be around people. Movement. Because a city is a terrible place to be alone, because there are all these damn people, and you still can't connect. Coming to a cafe is a way to make a connection."

In other words, although laptoppers appear oblivious to their surroundings, they are actually interacting in a new way. Laptops and PDAs are what Birkerts calls "very portable defenses against the anxiety of solitude." But perhaps the way they are now being used helps resolve the conflicts between public versus private as we begin to reconcile the ubiquitous workaholic nature of the Wi-Fi age with the simple need for body heat and the human touch.

Greg Lalas wrote this article on his Wi-Fi-enabled laptop while in New York, Boston, Milan, Paris, and Athens. He filed the story from John F. Kennedy International Airport. E-mail him at gabilan73@yahoo.com.



(Illustration / Andy Potts)
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