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Cambridge, MIT plan citywide WiFi

CAMBRIDGE -- Cambridge has found a partner in its effort to provide free wireless Internet access: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

With MIT's help, the city hopes to provide free access to its 100,000 residents by summer. The original goal was to help those who can least afford it, but it's expected to have broader benefits.

''It's making it a part of the infrastructure of the city," said Mary Hart, the city's director of information technology. ''At a basic level it should be available free."

MIT researchers will help test ''mesh" technology, which allows an individual to receive and send WiFi signals, so that a user doesn't need to be within range of the original signal from MIT.

The network would communicate through the wireless networking cards that are standard on many computers.

A priority area will be public housing, Hart said. The city is working with businesses to obtain discounts or donations of computers, she said. ''We want to make technology available to everybody, regardless of their economic standing," Hart said. ''Thirty to $50 dollars [per month] is prohibitive for some people."

Other cities, including Philadelphia, San Francisco, and New Orleans, are hoping to become wireless, too.

Harvard eventually may join the project, Hart said.

Officials at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst say they've had similar discussions about providing wireless access throughout the town.

Phone and cable TV companies have fiercely opposed free access. They contend competition from government-run Internet service stymies their incentive to invest in upgrading their networks.

Cambridge's network would be faster than dial-up service, but slower than high-speed services provided by telephone and cable TV companies, Hart said.

''We are not competing with them," she said. ''This is an entry-level option."

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