Boston Wi-Fi: We can build this ourselves

In a radical shift for muni Wi-Fi, Boston sets up an independent nonprofit to build the infrastructure, with a vision of competing ISPs, software vendors and information services delivering extra value.

From the state that kicked Microsoft off of government computers, comes a Wi-Fi plan that puts the "public" in "public broadband." Boston plans to cover the compact colonial city with Wi-Fi, not by partnering with a corporate partner but by setting up an independent nonprofit to manage the project, the Boston Globe reports.

City officials also plan to raise $16 to $20 million from businesses and foundations to fund the project, rather than handing over responsibility to a company.

By empowering an independent organization to own and operate the city's WiFi, or wireless fidelity, network, Boston is hoping to keep control of the technology deployment and use it to spur innovation, improve city services, and extend wireless Internet access into low-income neighborhoods across the so-called digital divide.

``They want to create a wholesale network and open it up for entrepreneurs to build all kinds of applications on top of it," said Jim Daniell , a Boston venture capitalist who tracks wireless development around the country. ``If this model works, it will probably become the dominant pattern other municipalities adopt. It could be a blueprint."

The move, radical by current standards, is a "recognition that wireless service is too expensive because of a lack of competition among companies extending wireless connections from the cross-country Internet lines to neighborhoods in the city," the article notes.

The vision is that a range of companies can build on top of the public infrastructure, for instance: software connecting members of neighborhood crime watch groups, programs allowing teachers to communicate with students and parents, ``smart parking" software enabling drivers to find parking spaces and lots on the fly, educational websites providing information on historic sights; and advertising offering discounts or dinner specials at stores and restaurants.

``It's a sounder plan than a lot of other cities that are just handing over their projects to private vendors," said Esme Vos , founder of Muniwireless.com, a portal for information on municipal wireless projects around the world. ``Given how important this is, Boston might have built the network itself, as they're doing in Amsterdam and Paris, rather than having a nonprofit do it. But their chances of getting it done quickly is higher now than if they tried to raise public money."

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