Boston Districts Go Wireless

Q&A: Community groups and city officials partner to bring Internet access to high-traffic areas; eWEEK interviews Brian Goodman, business manager for Boston Main Streets; City Councilor John Tobin; Wallace Olsen, principal at Ascio; and Carl Blume,

Boston main streets, a cooperative initiative between Bostons Office of Business Development and 19 nonprofit neighborhood groups, is overseeing the deployment of a free public wireless access pilot project in four commercial districts. The objective is to promote economic rejuvenation in areas that need it without putting any strain on the citys budget.

The installation is provided free of charge by Ascio Technologies Inc., of Copenhagen, Denmark, with equipment and services from Colubris Networks Inc., of Waltham, Mass., and Single Digits Inc., of Exeter, N.H., according to Ascio.

The system offers people in the districts free Internet access while waiting for the train, dining at neighborhood eateries or sitting on a park bench.

The effort gives the city a way to promote economic development, and it gives the vendors a way to showcase their technologies, according to Boston Main Streets officials. The Roslindale Village area went live last summer. West Roxbury and Hyde Park were up and running this past fall, and Washington Gateway is scheduled for this winter.

eWEEK Senior Editor Caron Carlson recently spoke with Brian Goodman, business manager for Boston Main Streets; City Councilor John Tobin (representing Ward 6, which includes Jamaica Plain and West Roxbury); Wallace Olsen, principal at Ascio; and Carl Blume, director of product marketing at Colubris, to see how the project is progressing.

Brian Goodman, Boston Main Streets

Weve all heard people in other cities across the country express concern that the provision of communications services may not be the proper role of government or the best use of taxpayer dollars. Have you had to confront that point of view?

No, we didnt actually put any budgetary money into this project. Everything being built has been offered in kind by the vendors, so theres no money to approve.

Have you encountered any resistance from the telephone carriers, cable companies or anyone else as youve developed this free wireless access project?

Most of the individuals who would challenge this would only go after it if we were providing a much larger service. Verizon [Communications Inc.] is a major sponsor of Boston Main Streets, and we havent heard anything from them indicating that they are bothered by it.

Why is this project not a potential threat to large service providers, as similar projects seem to be in other parts of the country?

We are providing this free in the commercial districts only, and were basically staying away from a lot of the contentious arguments. We thought it was an easier implementation initially to focus on the commercial districts and not get into the residential base.

This is not business-grade. Its robust enough to be useful for people who want to get out of the office and spend some time in cafes. It is not a replacement for DSL or business-grade access.

How will this system generate revenue and sustain itself?

Our system is dependent on ad revenue from the splash page for sustainability. A key part of the model we [decided] on requires us to generate significant use among the community for advertising. Well be concentrating on building up a user base.

How did you choose Ascio and its partners?

We spoke with larger providers like Cisco [Systems Inc.] and Nortel [Networks Inc.], and they typically offer very robust systems and also very expensive [ones].

They were offering discounts on a larger, more integrated system that would work with the fire department, police and that sort of thing. The things we were considering were the cost of implementation and the ease of installation.

One of the biggest barriers to building something like this is getting access to the infrastructure needed to place the antennas. Some of the larger systems were only able to place their equipment on things like light poles, and that required more complete access to city property. This is a simpler solution.

For this project, why did you select an advertising-based model?

Originally, the model we went with was a model sponsored and supported by local business. It proved to be very difficult because many of the businesses we serve are not the type with the money to sponsor this. The idea here is to spread some of the costs. It is a great chance to give some vendors an opportunity to build something that wasnt exorbitantly expensive and showcase their technology.

Next Page: John Tobin.