MIT and Cambridge Team on Free Wireless Internet Access

Cambridge, Mass., a city of about 100,000 people located just across the Charles River from Boston, is moving to become the latest U.S. metropolitan area entirely covered byWiFi wireless Internet access. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the major universities that call it home, said it would work with the city to bring Web access to all, including those living in public housing projects.

MIT plans to help implement the free city-wide wireless Web access system by the end of this summer.

The Cambridge network will employ mesh networking technology, which turns individual computers into access points as a way of extending network reach beyond wireless antennae.

A main focus of the effort will be to connect residents of the city’s public housing projects to the Internet, though the network will likely be accessible in a wide range of public venues, such as parks and city squares.

Harvard University, which is also based in Cambridge, may provide additional network capacity in the future. There is a possibility that the city will have to charge for access if the traffic forces MIT to beef up its own data network.

Join the Club

Cambridge joins a fast-growing list of cities of varying sizes that have advanced WiFi initiatives in one form or another. Google has offered to unwire Mountain View, Calif., for instance, via a free service that could be in place by this summer. Google is working with the city of San Francisco on a much larger project as well.

Philadelphia also has WiFi plans in the works. Late last year, it tapped EarthLink to build a 135-square-mile network to blanket the country’s fifth-largest city, making it the most ambitious effort of its type to date.

Meanwhile, small cities and towns have eyed WiFi as a way of providing a competitive edge in attracting high-tech companies and well-heeled residents alike.

WiFi is seen as a powerful tool to bridge the so-called digital divide by flooding the airwaves with ubiquitous access points, though critics note that it does not address the need to put Internet-accessible devices into more hands.

Several efforts are under way to make that happen in conjunction with the growth of WiFi, with some companies trying to produce no-frills notebook computers that could sell for as little as US$100.

Ironically, the number of free WiFi access points has actually decreased somewhat in recent years after being promoted heavily as a customer benefit in coffee shops and at other locations starting in the late 1990s. Many hotspots now offer paid access instead.

Like other cities, Cambridge has been led to WiFi in part due to frustration over the steep cost of high-speed Internet access provided by local cable and telephone companies. Current fees place those services out of the reach of many residents. The city had talks with vendors, including Cisco Systems, about a municipal network, but likely couldn’t turn down the offer of a free service, albeit one with an experimental bent.

In terms of geographic scope, the Cambridge project is more manageable than some other citywide WiFi pushes. Cambridge only covers about 6.5 square miles, with many of its residents centered around city squares near MIT and Harvard. Still to be worked out is how to handle intermediaries, such as hotels, which often charge end-users for wireless access.

Fading Technology?

It’s not clear that WiFi will win the technology battle in the long run, with somewhat limited speeds a major factor, Ovum Vice President Roger Entner told TechNewsWorld.

“The wireless companies are building faster networks and speed will win out in the end,” he said. Indeed, MIT acknowledged that its network will have relatively slow speeds. While e-mail and Web pages will travel easily across the network, it will likely not support video downloads and other multi-media, at least at first.

Indeed, Verizon is making a huge marketing push behind its alternative, the EV-DO technology that allows wireless access anywhere cellular service is available. Others are rolling out similar high-speed networks. While they do reduce reliance on WiFi hotspots, those services now come with relatively hefty price tags.

Others see WiFi as having broad, disruptive implications for the technology arena in the coming years. Several vendors are making combination cellular and WiFi phones that will be able to use hotspots to access VoIP technology, making wireless calls far less expensive.

“VoIP must have broadband and WiFi provides wireless broadband,” Capital Source Partners founder Theodore F. di Stefano told TechNewsWorld. “Someday we could all have a portable VoIP phone that would basically allow calls to anywhere in the world at the price of a local call. That’s a development with a lot of implications for the telecom industry.”

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