Boston Wi-Fi Plan Comes With $20 Million Price Tag

Boston, coming late to the Wi-Fi access party, unveils a plan that calls for as much as $20 million to be raised by local businesses and foundations.
Late off the mark in establishing citywide Wi-Fi access, Boston has prepared a plan that will enable a nonprofit corporation to oversee "- and control "- high-speed wireless broadband within city limits.

The ambitious plan, unveiled Monday, has a major hitch -- as much as $20 million would have to be raised by local businesses and foundations. The plan would create an umbrella organization that would encompass some existing hotspots, but would give sponsors and entrepreneurs an opportunity to create free or fee-based hotspots.

The report was immediately hailed by Michael Oh, founder of Wi-Fi advocacy group Oh, an entrepreneur who has deployed Wi-Fi hotspots along Boston's upscale Newbury Street, said the city's approach will enable a wide range of providers to offer Wi-Fi. Oh is a member of the task force that prepared the Boston plan.

Oh, who is founder and president of Tech Superpowers, said the key selling point of the plan is the non-profit status of the entity that would provide the network's infrastructure -- a measure that will insure that business and government interests won't be at the mercy of a single business provider.

"With this plan, entrepreneurs have an opportunity, which they wouldn't have in other situations," he said. "And big companies can sign up new customers or even offer add-on services to existing customers."

The separate umbrella organization envisioned by the city would own and operate the citywide Wi-Fi network. The approach also has the important goal of providing broadband wireless for low-income residents.

What about the $20 million needed for the project?

Participants at a press conference on Monday expressed confidence that private and business donors would support the project with enough charitable donations to build the wireless mesh network, backhaul systems, and fiber network for dozens of buildings in the city. They noted some $35 million had been donated years ago to support computer and Internet services for the city's schools and expressed confidence new donors would step forward to finance the new approach.

The new plan comes on the heels of a February report by the nonprofit Boston Foundation that took note of the Boston area's longtime leadership in technology innovation.

While the Boston approach would eschew the Wi-Fi deployment methodology used in Philadelphia and San Francisco, the Boston method seems similar to the approach used by Cincinnati, which has been rolling out a mostly-free network of Wi-Fi hotspots. The Philadelphia and San Francisco city Wi-Fi deployments rely on heavy business involvement and sponsorship.

The city of Boston has already deployed a group of public wireless hotspots called Boston Main Streets Wi-Fi that covers a handful of business districts in the city.

Two new hotspots are expected to open under the auspices of the new plan by the end of the summer.

"What this will do is give us citywide service at a reasonable cost," Mayor Thomas Menino said, according to the Boston Globe. "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."

The latest plan was prepared by a task force co-chaired by Joyce Plotkin, president of the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council; venture capitalist Rick Burnes, and retired Harvard Business School professor James Cash.

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