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Got Wi-Fi?

Community wireless was a smash hit out of the gate, but nobody wants to pay

Tim Moore of Portsmouth, N.H., uses the city’s wireless at Breaking New Grounds coffee shop in Market Square. Tim Moore of Portsmouth, N.H., uses the city’s wireless at Breaking New Grounds coffee shop in Market Square. (Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff)
By Katheleen Conti
Globe Staff / March 14, 2010

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When Salem launched the area’s first open-access municipal Wi-Fi network in 2004, it revolutionized the way downtown shops did business.

Participating shop owners proudly displayed cards on their windows touting the service, enticing laptop-carrying customers to come in, sit down, have something to eat, and enjoy online shopping or getting work done remotely.

“It was fabulous. . . . It worked extremely well,’’ said Patricia H. Zaido, executive director of The Salem Partnership, the nonprofit organization that spearheaded Salem’s adoption of municipal Wi-Fi. “We had it before Boston. The city embraced it; we had a big opening.’’

But approximately two years later, free municipal Wi-Fi in Salem was dead. Along the same timeline, some analysts noted that the highly anticipated free public Wi-Fi wave that was to have swept across cities and towns nationwide also fizzled, posing the question: It’s 2010. Do you know where your free municipal Wi-Fi is?

“The Salem story is kind of interesting, and indicative of the initial momentum and not following through,’’ said Michael Oh, founder and president of Boston-based Tech Superpowers, and the creator of the small wireless corridor, SalemOpen.net, for Salem’s Wi-Fi project in 2004. “Nobody at the end of the day was so proud of it enough to write the checks. That’s something that you see in a lot of municipal-type projects. Everything is good-spirited until you start knocking on doors and asking for money.’’

Salem’s free public Wi-Fi was rooted in partnerships with businesses, whose owners agreed to pay $25 a month for the first year and then $50 a month the second year, Zaido said. How such a popular project would fail so quickly is still baffling to Zaido.

Wireless Internet access, in some cases free, is still offered in many downtown Salem businesses, but owners are using their own service providers.

“I guess it was easier for the shops to do it themselves,’’ Zaido said.

It may not be as hot as predicted, but free municipal Wi-Fi is being offered in Portsmouth, N.H., while in other communities, including Haverhill and Lowell, officials are exploring partnerships to get it started.

What public Wi-Fi offers that private businesses can’t is a “cloud’’ of connectivity throughout expanded areas of a community, so that users don’t need to be inside a shop to pick up a wireless signal. In Portsmouth, where free public Wi-Fi was first introduced in 2004 and expanded in 2007, thanks to a $10,000 state grant, users can go online anywhere in Market Square and Prescott Park, said Alan Brady, the city’s IT coordinator.

Portsmouth’s Wi-Fi network has cost taxpayers nothing and is widely touted as a model of a successful public/private partnership. For residents who lost power during last month’s windstorm, the city’s Wi-Fi, which kept working, proved to be their online lifeline. Data collected by the city indicated that on Feb. 26 and Feb. 27, 259 users accessed public Wi-Fi for an average of two hours per session.

“It gets people out of the house. On a summer’s day, they can go to the park with a computer or iPod and use the Internet for free for a couple of hours,’’ Brady said. “And also, people have done cutbacks on their cellphones and even on Internet, so it gives those residents the possibility to keep looking for jobs, to keep the economy going, and keeps local businesses going.’’

What happened in Portsmouth has been difficult to replicate in other cities, particularly because Wi-Fi technology is no longer a novelty. Around 2003, when public Wi-Fi was in its infancy, Cisco Systems, which had a location in Portsmouth, saw an opportunity to test out its new wireless access-point equipment and donated $350,000 worth of it to the city, Brady said. Portsmouth’s size, just under 16 square miles, made it the perfect test ground for municipal Wi-Fi, said Doug Bates, president of the Greater Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce.

“We don’t have a secret. We just have a lot of social capital . . . meaning that everything here is done by relationship,’’ Bates said. “It’s the correct climate for things to happen here.’’

Local business BayRing Communications provides the Internet service as well as secure storage for the hardware donated by Cisco, while Manchester-based Single Digits monitors and maintains the system, both for free, Brady said. He added that without that in-kind service, it would cost the city roughly $40,000 a year to run it all.

Of the 20 access points donated by Cisco, eight have been implemented. Brady said he hopes to deploy at least four more this summer. The city also continues to build on its partnerships, having recently submitted an application to Google, which is looking for communities interested in being test sites for its ultra-high-speed broadband networks.

In today’s economic environment, it is hard for communities to justify municipal Wi-Fi networks, said Judith A. Dumont, director of the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, a division of the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative.

But while some communities seek public Wi-Fi, others, particularly those in rural areas, still have limited or no broadband access at all. Pursuant to the Broadband Act , signed into law by Governor Deval Patrick in 2008, the Broadband Institute’s mission is to extend affordable high-speed Internet access statewide.

Currently, it is in the midst of the Middle Mile broadband initiative, to provide high-speed Internet access to 43 towns in Western Mass. Service providers contend it is not financially feasible to expand their broadband services to rural areas, where the investment will outweigh the returns, Dumont said.

“Some towns don’t have access at all. Some towns have access in the town center, but not at home,’’ Dumont said. “Can you imagine that? It’s a virtual utility. When the Internet came out, people thought it was a luxury, but it’s become a necessity.’’

More than $7 billion in federal stimulus funds has been allocated for broadband expansion nationwide, and some of that money recently went to the University of Massachusetts in Lowell to make high-speed Internet available to elders and low-income minority residents.

Part of that will include planting the seeds for municipal Wi-Fi, which will ultimately benefit residents and tourists, as well as attracting new technology-minded businesses, said Robert Forrant, professor of regional economic and social development at UMass Lowell.

Haverhill, too, would like to get in on the public Wi-Fi act, said Mayor James J. Fiorentini, adding that he envisions people coming to downtown, the parks, the boardwalk, and to coffee shops with their laptops.

Making downtown Haverhill a Wi-Fi hotspot can happen very quickly, said Dave Spaulding, president of Haverhill-based USAI.net, which powers some Wi-Fi networks for the city of Boston. But not for free.

“Cities don’t give away free water,’’ said Spaulding, who has been in talks with Fiorentini about Wi-Fi for a few years. “How is it sustainable? How does it make money to keep up with installation, maintenance, and then give it away? We don’t do that with water, schools, roads — why then do it with Internet?’’

Michael Oh, of Tech Superpowers, said the municipal Wi-Fi wave may not have turned out as expected, but there was still some evolution.

“If you look at municipal Wi-Fi, it’s been quiet for about two years now and before that there was a lot of buzz about it,’’ Oh said.

“In those two years, people can access the Internet on their phones, buses — there’s definitely a movement, it’s just not happening the way people thought it would.’’

Katheleen Conti can be reached at kconti@globe.com.