Prof pushes for city-wide wireless

By Kate Augusto

Boston is about to take the first step toward becoming a city where the benefits of wireless Internet are available to all residents, according to Richard O’Bryant, a senior research fellow at the Northeastern Center for Urban and Regional Policy.

The Boston Wireless Initiative will be implemented in a test area in Grove Hall in Roxbury sometime in 30 to 60 days, O’Bryant said.

If all goes well, they will be expanding to other parts of the city, he said, adding that Internet access is an increasing necessity for many.

“It is becoming more and more difficult for people to function without the access to information that the Internet provides,” he said.

One of the goals of the initiative is to provide access for low income and underrepresented communities in Boston. O’Bryant cites the “digital divide” which President Clinton once defined as the greatest civil rights issue of the 21st century. The “Living the American Dream” website, which represents an eight-part series put on by United Way of Massachusetts Bay, said government data finds 90 percent of families with annual incomes of $75,000 or more have home Internet access, while only 23 percent of families with annual incomes of less than $15,000 have home Internet access.

But in Boston, a new wireless system means the chance to include everyone, O’Bryant said.

“This will hopefully get communities that are not traditionally connected to try and be active participants and contributors of the content on the web,” O’Bryant said.

O’Bryant is the son of John D. O’Bryant, who was the first African-American vice president at Northeastern and known for his humility and advancements in education. Among other accomplishments, he served on the Boston School Committee, and Northeastern’s African-American Institute is named after him.

Richard O’Bryant became part of the wireless program during his doctoral research with a low-income housing development in Roxbury. He received the 2002-2003 National Rising Scholars Award to Advance Research on Higher Education for the Public Good and served as a panelist in a conversation yesterday about the need for technology to achieve the American dream.

The wireless initiative has benefits for the whole community, and O’Bryant said there is a need to find a way to make all users take advantage of it.

As a wireless city, Boston would attract businesses, update first-responder communication networks like those used for firefighters and patrolmen and improve the education system, according to a column O’Bryant wrote on the Northeastern Center for Urban and Regional Policy website.

“City-wide Internet access could help support curricula in making grade school students comfortable with regular use of the Internet through out-of-school access,” O’Bryant wrote.

The initiative would benefit Northeastern students as well, he said.

“This is a great proposal. Having the benefit of a free wireless Internet system will be beneficial to companies and people who cannot readily access information,” said Elizabeth Reni, a freshman international affairs major. “Plus, I wouldn’t mind having the access on all of our campus.”

The city is implementing this technology through the non-profit sector, which is unique from every other city that has tried the move. The non-profit sector will raise money and acquire technological donations from private companies. Doing this through a non-profit organization is less risky, O’Bryant said, because any potential lawsuits from private sectors will not be directed toward the city. When Philadelphia, the first city to install city-wide wireless access, gave rights to the private company Earthlink, Verizon tried to sue the city of Philadelphia.

It is not clear if Philadelphia has been successful yet, O’Bryant said, “because they literally just rolled out [with wireless Internet] last month.” Corpus Christi, Tex., and Chaska, Minn. are also becoming wireless cities.

“We have to build the capacity of each user to take advantage [of wireless],” O’Bryant said. “We can’t say ‘build it and he will come.'”

In his article, O’Bryant wrote that low-income individuals and families may be reluctant to use the new Internet technology because they feel they have to spend time learning how to use it, they are not comfortable with computers and the Internet, and they don’t understand the relevance that information technology has in everyday life.

To counteract that, he stresses the need for technological assistance, and Mayor Thomas Menino recently commissioned a task force to look into the issues involved with making Boston a wireless city.

“They’re taking into consideration the need for technological resources for support and training,” O’Bryant said.

O’Bryant said the city’s involvement is positive.

“This decision rested with the mayor and getting support at the top level, but had the city not become part of making this happen, community-based organizations would have done it,” O’Bryant said. “I believe that this technology would have advanced with or without the city’s involvement, but their involvement is better.”

Amelia Lepak, a freshman graphic design major, said she thinks wireless Internet is a step in the right direction for Boston.

“With all the college students, this will help advance the city into the future. It’s good to see the city making strides towards the future,” Lepak said. “It’s also good to see the city doing more for the advancement of the underprivileged.”

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