Six months ago, Boston seemed poised on the brink of a WiFi revolution. The dreams of a few idealistic techies to blanket the city with free wireless internet blossomed into possibility when City Councilor John Tobin organized a citywide WiFi summit at the Museum of Science last May. Talk of “free WiFi for public access and social justice” and the “digital divide,” long uttered only by the utopian computer geeks behind WiFi groups like NewburyOpen.net and the Boston Wireless Advocacy Group (BostonWAG), emerged from the starchiest of bureaucrats. Mayor Menino himself demanded “equal access to WiFi” for all Boston neighborhoods.
Now, in October, Boston’s WiFi dreams seem frozen in time. NewburyOpen.net and BostonWAG haven’t updated their websites for months. A widely awaited report on the state of Boston WiFi, which was funded by a $25,000 grant from The Boston Foundation and $40,000 in time and labor from BTS Partners, remains unreleased, leaving WiFi crusaders in the dark about what’s happening. And despite an initial promise to create two of four free, city-sponsored WiFi hotspots in neighborhoods across the city by early June, Boston Main Streets, the city’s neighborhood development program, has only succeeded in creating one free WiFi hotspot in Roslindale.
The dream hasn’t died—it’s just undergoing the disillusioning process of becoming reality.
“WiFi in Boston is not going well, and it’s not going badly—it’s just sitting there,” says Michael Oh, the president and founder of Tech Superpowers, Inc., whose NewburyOpen.net has provided free wireless access to the denizens of Newbury Street since 2002. “Everyone loves it, people wrote articles, but the transition from pockets of WiFi to a citywide network costs lots of money. This isn’t like sewage or water. It’s going to be a slow, constant fight.”
Doug Schremp, the chief technical officer at BTS who led the team of consultants that wrote the still-AWOL WiFi report, says that installing city-wide WiFi in Boston involves problems that were overlooked in the heady early days, such as signal weakness and zoning regulations.
“You can’t just strap access points on every lamppost and get it in all the living rooms,” Schremp says.
“It takes time to build,” says Brian Goodman, the neighborhood business manager for Boston Main Streets, who is managing the program’s WiFi initiative. “We want to take the time to build what we’re doing right.”
With a budget of “zero dollars,” Goodman’s team of pro bono labor has been working steadily on the three promised WiFi hotspots in West Roxbury, Hyde Park and the Washington Gateway area since springtime. Technical, legal and contractual problems have caused delays, but Goodman is still hoping that Hyde Park and West Roxbury WiFi will be up to Roslindale’s standards next spring.
Even then, when a few free, city-sponsored hotspots become a reality, last spring’s idealistic supporters may be disappointed. Goodman says that Roslindale’s hotspot usage figures are low. Sadly, the anticipated legions of laptop-lugging information-freedom-lovers have failed to materialize in Adams Park.
“I’ve been a little bit disappointed to date,” says Pat McCormick, one of the co-founders of BostonWAG. “We still haven’t proven the importance of WiFi to as many people as necessary.”
WiFi idealism, however, dies hard.
“I would still call WiFi a disruptive technology, in the best sense of the word,” says McCormick.
“Bridging the digital divide and providing everyone with internet access is a great thing,” says Schremp.
“We’re not letting go of the issue,” says Councilor Tobin, patron saint of Boston WiFi. “We’ve brought people together with no city money, just effort and will. We had the ability to listen to the constituency. To that end, I think we’ve succeeded.”