Boston to use nonprofit group to run its Wi-Fi network

Boston officials announced Monday that they will search for a nonprofit corporation to raise up to $20 million to build and operate wireless Internet services citywide over the next two years.

The unnamed, independent organization will give the city more control over the Wi-Fi network than would choosing an outside Internet service provider to run the network, with hopes of keeping wireless Internet service costs lower, said William “Bo” Holland, the city’s acting CIO who has met regularly with members of the mayor’s Wireless Task Force in recent months.

Holland spoke in an interview just prior to an announcement today by Mayor Thomas Menino and task force members. After two years in the acting post, Holland today was named head of intergovernmental relations for the city, and Menino announced William Oates as the new city CIO.

“We believe the nonprofit route may be the best way to bring low-cost service to every neighborhood while providing a platform for innovation unlike any in the nation,” Menino said in a statement. “By keeping the network open, we believe we can create a hotbed of entrepreneurial activity, which will spur economic growth and job creation.”

According to the recommendations of the Wireless Task Force, the new organization will oversee construction and technology integration and then own and operate the network.

The concept of using a nonprofit entity to run the service is unique as far as Boston officials can determine, and was designed to avoid problems encountered in other big cities weighing municipal Wi-Fi, Holland said.

Holland said he and the task force spent considerable time talking to Philadelphia and San Francisco officials about their approaches to issuing requests for proposals (RFPs). But the contractors, such as Earthlink in Philadelphia, which eventually won the business, told the cities “we don’t like the specifications and we will do it this way, so the city was stuck with what the vendor wanted to do,” he said. “We tried to benefit from their experiences.”

None of the major ISPs have shown an inclination to provide low-cost services to Boston, Holland said. The plan is that once the nonprofit begins to oversee the building of the network, small and large ISPs will use the network to offer Internet access via their sites. “Even a mom and pop ISP will be eligible to buy broadband access and remarket and resell it,” Holland said, so that even a neighborhood might be represented by a smaller ISP.

The nonprofit approach, which relies on raising $16 million to $20 million from local businesses and foundations, avoids tapping taxpayer dollars, Holland said. Even so, “we see huge demand from residents and businesses,” he said.

The service will bolster city services such as emergency response and inspections, Holland said. For example, housing inspectors would use wireless handhelds to file reports The service could also provide building maps and diagrams to firefighters arriving at the scene of an emergency or fire, Holland said. In addition, residents and businesses could have high speed access wirelessly, he said.

The biggest motivation for the nonprofit organization was to avoid over-promising what the service would provide, Holland said. When San Francisco put out its RFP, the public first thought the service would be free, but it later was dubbed “affordable” and now involves higher costs for deployment because of the hills and valleys in that city, Holland said. “We are trying very hard not to over-promise, and we think we have a solid plan,” he said.

Several Wi-Fi experts questioned what Boston was doing on practical grounds, but praised the city for trying to improve on problems encountered in other U.S. cities.

“Time to market will actually take longer [with the nonprofit approach] because of the need to organize and get partners, although it allows more oversight by the community and city,” said Philip Redman, an analyst at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn. “Lots of questions are outstanding,” he said, such as how Internet access will be provided, including the infrastructure.

Holland said the city plans to leverage access it already has to dark fiber in the ground and to fiber conduit, which is the pipe that contains the optical fiber, for part of the infrastructure. An existing fiber network is now being installed in 130 city buildings that will provide part of that network, he said.

“Boston has a lot of work to do to figure all this out, but I do commend them for trying to be at the forefront of Wi-Fi,” added Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates in Northboro, Mass. “There is no question that in the near future, cities that do not have municipal Wi-Fi wireless broadband available will be at a major competitive disadvantage” with other cities that do. “The sooner they get it running, the better,” he said.

Holland admitted it is possible that using a nonprofit group could delay the rollout of the system. “But the [governance] model is more important than the speed of deployment,” Holland said. “While San Francisco and Phillie went full speed ahead, we can’t afford not to do it well and build a first rate system.”

Esme Vos, founder of Muniwireless.com, a site that describes municipal Wi-Fi projects at hundreds of cities globally, said a nonprofit approach in Boston might be faster than raising taxpayer dollars, even though it could be fraught with political complexity. It’s logical that a nonprofit entity could keep the service cost lower than a private company would, she added.

Holland said the full buildout of the city’s Wi-Fi proposed network could take two years, but that the city is opening two hot spots in the next 30 to 60 days, one near the City Hall Plaza, and the other in the Rose Kennedy Greenway above two of the recently opened tunnels of the fabled Big Dig project.

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