Boston Approves Non-Profit Wireless Network

In a departure from the approach several other major cities have taken, Boston is pushing forward with plans for a citywide wireless Internet network that would be built and maintained by a non-profit organization, rather than large telecommunications corporations.

Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino recently approved a plan to have a non-profit group privately raise the $16 million to $20 million the city estimates it will take to get the Wi-Fi system up and running.

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"We believe the non-profit route may be the best way to bring low-cost service to every neighborhood, while providing a platform for innovations unlike any in the nation," Menino said in a statement. "By keeping the network open, we believe we can create a hotbed of entrepreneurial activity, which will spur economic growth and job creation."

Contrary to Wi-Fi plans in Philadelphia and San Francisco, which have partnered with EarthLink to build and maintain their systems, the non-profit entity in Boston would not sell its services directly to end-users. Instead, the group would provide Internet service providers with low-cost wholesale access to broadband, and they, in turn, would provide the tech support, billing, and account setup for users.

The plan would enable entrepreneurs and small companies to offer uniquely specialized and highly localized Internet services, with a hope that this new competition will lower prices and increase variety, according to a task force that submitted recommendations to Menino.

"If this model for wireless is offered by the City of Boston, Tech Superpowers will be one of the first ISPs knocking on the door of this non-profit," Michael Oh, president of Tech Superpowers, a former Inc. 500 company, said at a mayoral press conference on July 31. "We're trying to inspire other small businesses to start understanding that this is a real business opportunity."

Oh was a member of the task force that spent five months researching wireless efforts across the country.

Officials with the mayor's office estimate the network could be operational within 18 to 24 months. A new task force will now oversee financing, while another will ensure that the project remains independent from city government.

According to the task force's report, Internet broadband is currently available to almost 90 percent of Boston households, but only 40 percent of households subscribe. The report also found that 30 percent of households are using dialup and the remaining 30 percent go without home Internet.

"What we're trying to do is bring Internet access to as many people across the city as possible," Menino said. "We believe this model could be the best way to bridge the so-called 'Digital Divide.'"

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