Boston will tap a nonprofit corporation to blanket the city with ``open access" wireless Internet connections, under a plan to be unveiled today by Mayor Thomas M. Menino.
The plan, which envisions raising $16 million to $20 million from local businesses and foundations, is a striking departure from the business models used by other cities, including Philadelphia and San Francisco, which have turned over responsibility for their wireless data networks to outside companies such as Earthlink Inc. and Google Inc.
By empowering an independent organization to own and operate the city's WiFi, or wireless fidelity, network, Boston is hoping to keep control of the technology deployment and use it to spur innovation, improve city services, and extend wireless Internet access into low-income neighborhoods across the so-called digital divide. WiFi allows laptops, handheld computers, cellphones, music players, and other devices to connect to the Internet at high speeds via radio waves.
``They want to create a wholesale network and open it up for entrepreneurs to build all kinds of applications on top of it," said Jim Daniell , a Boston venture capitalist who tracks wireless development around the country. ``If this model works, it will probably become the dominant pattern other municipalities adopt. It could be a blueprint."
Menino is scheduled to roll out the much-anticipated plan at a City Hall news conference this afternoon. It was crafted by the mayor's Wireless Task Force and cochaired by Joyce Plotkin , president of the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council; Rick Burnes , cofounder of the venture capital firm Charles River Ventures; and retired Harvard Business School professor James Cash . The mayor created the task force in February to enable Boston to catch up to the dozens of other US cities working to spread wireless Internet access.
One wild card in the city's WiFi campaign will be the reaction of the companies that sell Internet access in the city: Comcast Corp., Verizon Communications Inc., and RCN Corp. While all have kept a low profile as the task force developed its plan, a Verizon spokesman made it clear last winter that the company would view any new entrant into the high-speed Internet broadband market as competition.
Despite efforts around the country, no universal wireless network is up and running in a major American city. The task force report in Boston anticipates that it will take up to two years to blanket the city with radio transmitters, or routers, and wireless Internet access points.
Two initial wireless ``hot spots" are set to open by the end of the summer, one in the Quincy Market and City Hall Plaza area and the other in the nearby Rose Kennedy Greenway and Christopher Columbus Park area. A third could be ready by the end of the year in Dorchester's Codman Square.
Construction of the citywide network is expected to begin in six to nine months, using fiber optic cable connecting city sites to the Internet backbone and cakebox-size radio transmitters to beam wireless signals from city-owned buildings, poles, or traffic lights.
``What this will do is give us citywide service at a reasonable cost," Menino said. ``This is a unique approach. We're not turning it over to someone else. We'll be able to control our destiny. One outside corporation shouldn't have a monopoly over this technology."
While some other cities have promised free WiFi, subsidized by an Internet provider that will support the service through advertising, Boston's plan would seek to promote competition between any number of Internet service providers that would piggyback on the network and offer access through their sites.
A user opening a laptop at Quincy Market at lunchtime, for instance, might get Internet access from any of several providers. Some might offer free ad-supported service, though most probably would probably capitalize on the new technology to offer people Internet access for about $15 a month, less than half of the $35 to $40 average price charged on average today by broadband providers, according to task force members.
``It's not for us to say if anyone will offer free service. We're not going to force this or preclude this from happening," said task force project manager Nicholas J. Vantzelfde , director at Altman Vilandrie, a Boston consulting firm hired by the task force. Vantzelfde said the nonprofit building the wholesale network would not offer access itself.
Task force members said their approach stemmed from the recognition that wireless service is too expensive because of a lack of competition among companies extending wireless connections from the cross-country Internet lines to neighborhoods in the city. Leasing parts of the city-owned infrastructure, from fireboxes and streetlight poles to conduits and rights of way, to the nonprofit corporation is seen as a way to drive down costs. The city hasn't designated the nonprofit or formulated its plan for raising money from private sources.
The task force envisions a host of applications built on Boston's wireless network: among them, software connecting members of neighborhood crime watch groups, programs allowing teachers to communicate with students and parents, ``smart parking" software enabling drivers to find parking spaces and lots on the fly, educational websites providing information on historic sights; and advertising offering discounts or dinner specials at stores and restaurants.
``It's a sounder plan than a lot of other cities that are just handing over their projects to private vendors," said Esme Vos , founder of Muniwireless.com, a portal for information on municipal wireless projects around the world. ``Given how important this is, Boston might have built the network itself, as they're doing in Amsterdam and Paris, rather than having a nonprofit do it. But their chances of getting it done quickly is higher now than if they tried to raise public money."
Robert Weisman can be reached at email@example.com.