Boston’s vision of municipal Wi-Fi sees city, university and hospital fiber networks bypassing the major service providers and laying the foundation for free Internet access, proponents said this week.
Mayor Thomas Menino on Monday announced the recommendations of a wireless task force he formed in February. It called on the city to find a nonprofit organization to oversee the building of a citywide wireless network for broadband Internet access, then own and operate it.
“The most important thing is to lower the cost of this kind of service,” said Rick Burnes, a general partner at Boston-area venture capital firm Charles River Ventures who helped lead the task force.
Public Wi-Fi can provide the “last mile” of connectivity to homes and businesses, but the major providers of broadband, such as Verizon Communications and Comcast, own the lines that typically connect that part of the network to the Internet backbone, he said.
“If you’re going to provide Wi-Fi or any broadband services, they get the lion’s share of the dollar, at a very high price,” Burnes said.
Instead of connecting its wireless routers to that commercial “backhaul” network, Boston wants to form a network out of existing fiber owned by the city and local hospitals and universities. Cutting out Verizon and Comcast would cut costs enough to make free, advertising-supported basic Internet services feasible, Burnes said. The nonprofit running the network would open it up to third-party ISPs (Internet service providers) rather than offer service itself. Incumbent carriers would be welcome to act as ISPs on the wireless system.
Unlike in San Francisco, where free Google service is envisioned as slower than the Earthlink subscription product, all the ISPs using the Boston would offer the same speed. What will command a premium price will be innovative services, Burnes believes.
The cost is hard to pin down at this point, but the whole project might cost about $10 million, Burnes said. Though a few hundred thousand dollars have already been raised, he acknowledged there is a long way to go. On Monday, Pam Reeve, who was a member of the task force and once led transaction processing company Lightbridge, volunteered to develop partnerships and raise funds.
Boston, a compact city with several universities, is better positioned than most cities to leverage fiber owned by the city and other partners, said Craig Settles, a wireless consultant at Successful.com, in Oakland, California. But these resources could be part of the solution in many places, he said. The key is to be creative and look at all the possibilities, Settles said.
The city’s funding model is also a good one, Settles said. There are federal grants available for purposes such as emergency preparedness, and charitable groups such as health organizations might help fund a wireless network in exchange for being able to use it for their own needs.
“It is a model that is in its infancy, but it has viability because it makes business sense,” Settles said.