Prof talks wireless city

By Mike Devine

Boston’s initiative to “go wireless” made an appearance at Northeastern Thursday in a presentation by political science Professor Richard O’Bryant.

O’Bryant discussed the benefits and risks of having Boston provide its population with cheap, wireless Internet service.

He said the goals of the initiative, which is being pushed by Mayor Thomas Menino, are to facilitate economic development, improve city departments’ efficiencies and increase civic engagement. But O’Bryant maintained that although the current plan has good ideas, it is not perfect.

The project calls for providing affordable wireless Internet to the city and its residents, which would allow people, who have never before had the opportunity, to access the information highway.

Boston’s plan takes an alternative approach compared to other cities that have experimented with the idea. The city would have a nonprofit organization at the helm of the project, rather than a private company like Philadelphia’s partnership with Earthlink.

“I think the nonprofit model is good, but there are still inherent risks,” he said.

O’Bryant highlighted suggestions he believes could cover some of the missing pieces in the proposed structure.

He suggested the managerial responsibility for the network be distributed to community-based organizations (CBOs), including The Boston Foundation and The Greater Boston Urban Resources Partnership, strategies be developed for engaging marginalized and low-income communities and a “bottom-up” approach be taken instead of a “top-down” one.

“I think by having CBOs in charge of management, people would feel more comfortable approaching them with problems they have with service rather than calling City Hall,” O’Bryant said.

O’Bryant also questioned whether people who do not already have Internet access would be inclined to start using it, and how to deal with people who are apprehensive when it comes to technology.

”The most important thing right now is getting people comfortable with technology,” he said.

Another concern O’Bryant has is that by the time the city installs the technology, it will most likely be obsolete compared to the service private companies will be able to offer.

Boston is ahead of many cities in its pursuit of providing municipal wireless access, including Philadelphia, San Francisco and Minneapolis. Philadelphia and San Francisco were among the first cities to pursue offering wireless service, but have encountered roadblocks.

Private Internet service providers claimed competition from municipal wireless networks would hurt their business. O’Bryant said lawsuits were filed against Philadelphia’s plans to bring wireless to the city, but after seeing only 20 percent of the population had pre-reregistered for the service, companies were less threatened by the idea.

Boston’s current plan would call for charging users $10 to $15 per month, and would require interfaces to be installed across Boston on traffic lights and apartment building roofs, among other places.

The task force in charge of planning the initiative released a report in December with updated goals for the project. It hopes to raise $15 to $20 million in private donations to help finance the project, as there are no plans to use city funds.

Students had mixed opinions on the initiative after hearing O’Bryant’s presentation.

“I think it’s a good idea, though after hearing the professor’s presentation I don’t know if it will be worth it if the technology will be obsolete,” said Emily Neal, a doctorate student in political science.

Incoming doctorate student in political science Cheikhahmed Ould Sidi said he was optimistic about the project.

“I think the professor knows the situation better than most people and so his suggestions are definitely worth consideration,” he said.

Leave a Reply