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.
John Tobin, Boston city councilor for District 6
What public policy goals are served by the Boston Main Streets Wi-Fi project?
It should always be our mission to make the next generation better. Boston has a lot going for it because weve been able to stay ahead of the curve and evolve.
The Internet is the communications device of our generation, and if you dont have access to it, youre left behind—socially, economically, academically. We have to give all people an opportunity to get online.
Do you see it as the proper role of government to be involved in providing communications services?
Im not looking for the city of Boston to become a utility. We have enough trouble keeping the streets lighted and keeping the streets paved. However, I do think we have a responsibility to be a convener [in making Internet access available], and I think weve accomplished that.
How have you managed to avoid the heated controversies surrounding municipal Wi-Fi projects in other cities?
Sometimes it pays not to be first. We monitored closely what Philadelphia was doing. We saw that situation, and we said that were here to make friends and not enemies. We invited Comcast [Corp.] and Verizon to the table at the first summit. They declined to participate, but they were in the audience. I wanted to bring them to the table so theyd know theres no hidden agenda here.
What is the next step for Boston in terms of deploying Wi-Fi?
I think the next step is to do an analysis on these four projects before they bring it out to the next four or five neighborhoods. I think they are wise to start out small, rather than just going out and trying to light up the whole city at once.
Wallace Olsen, Ascio Technologies
How did you first approach the city of Boston on this project, and what concerns had to be overcome before you could begin deployment?
We started a conversation with Boston in [August 2004]. The city wanted to go forward, but they didnt want any liability.
I dont think they knew how to fund it, who was going to operate it, who was going to control it. We said wed be responsible. Setting up these types of applications doesnt take a lot of time, energy or expense. Everybody overthinks it—it makes it overcomplicated.
How much is this project costing Ascio?
Out of pocket, $7,500—including labor and antenna cables, antennas, power supply, mounting brackets, posts, poles, things like that. [This does not include the antennas from Colubris, which Ascio also purchased.]
On a pro bono project like this, is it still necessary to develop relationships with city offices?
Yes. It allows us to have access to municipal buildings. The community center is a good place to set up because it offers services to the district.
Have you encountered any technological challenges?
In West Roxbury, we didnt have line of sight at the community center, so were going to be deploying on a Catholic school and relaying back down to the community center.
What are some of the bureaucratic challenges you have encountered?
Waiting for “roof rights” agreements, particularly dealing with the Boston Housing Authority. They were reviewing this as if were a cellular company. They had a 24-page contract. I had to reiterate that this is not a for-profit deployment.
Are you taking a chance here, from a business perspective?
Yes. Proof of concept does not exist. Were gambling. Were going to keep it going for 18 months regardless of the costs associated with it. But I cant imagine how it would ever fail.
Carl Blume, Colubris Networks
How does the Boston Main Streets deployment differ from other municipal Wi-Fi projects Colubris has provided equipment for?
The business models are a little bit different. A project we did at the Resort Municipality of Whistler [in British Columbia] was to bring up a service that could be offered as a per-user fee service, whereas the Boston project is open. Bostons objective was to promote greater foot traffic within the commercial zone. From the equipment providers perspective, what that means is that you have to have equipment that can be customized to whatever business model is being deployed.
What equipment is deployed in each public access zone?
[Colubris] MSC-3300 multiservice controller is installed at a central location. It has an access point installed in it as well as the access control function, which does things like authentication and providing the ad page. There are two other access points, typically [Colubris] MAP-330 with dual radios installed on other buildings.
How did you design a network to cover the whole commercial district of the neighborhood with just one connection?
We had to find a way to distribute the signal from a central point where the Internet connection was present. To do that, we used a wireless distribution system [WDS], which is a way of carrying an Internet signal to multiple access points wirelessly.
We installed our access controller in the location where the Internet connection was present. It is a dual radio unit—one radio provides client access to the service, and the other radio is used to create the WDS connections to other points within the village. There are two other access points installed in other buildings determined by their location so that the entire village is blanketed by signal.
What advantages do you consider your system to offer over mesh networking?
One of the things that customers like about our solution is that the WDS links provide very predictable performance. Mesh can be less predictable when youve got one radio. Dual radios allow you to maintain full performance right out to the clients. Some of the mesh projects on the market have only one radio, and the radio has to do double duty.
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