The city of Boston wants to put its wireless Internet future in the hands of a nonprofit group that would own and operate a citywide Wi-Fi network, Mayor Thomas Menino announced Monday.
Large and small communities around the United States have been kick-starting local wireless Internet projects, citing a lack of coverage by existing carriers and high prices for current services, among other problems. Like two of the biggest cities going down this path, Philadelphia and San Francisco, Boston hopes to spark innovation and economic growth while bringing more low-income residents online, all without spending taxpayers’ money. But unlike those cities, Boston doesn’t want to hire a private company to carry out its wireless vision.
The plan calls for designating a nonprofit entity to deliver citywide Wi-Fi at wholesale prices and let other service providers offer end users access to the network, either for free or for a cost. Even community-based organizations with grant money could offer service over the network, and the city envisions both companies and individuals finding innovative uses for the infrastructure. Surplus revenue to the nonprofit would go back to the community for programs to get low-income people online.
The nonprofit would start raising money through donations but also look at equity and debt financing, according to a statement by the mayor’s office.
The city would also be able to buy wireless capacity at wholesale for use in new applications such as voice over IP, the city said. The network would use resources owned by the city, such as light poles.
Part of the idea is to bring more broadband competition to Boston in hopes of pushing existing carriers to come up with new services or lower prices. Large incumbent service providers such as Verizon Communications have raised objections to some cities’ involvement in broadband, claiming unfair competition and backing legislation that would block such initiatives.
The Boston plan came from a task force Menino formed in February to study the possibilities for wireless in the city. It includes business, academic and city government representatives as well as people from the wireless community. On Monday, Menino kicked off the second phase of the project by forming an internal team led by the city’s chief information officer, Bill Oates, to carry out further study. Also Monday, he said Pam Reeve, a member of the task force, would lead efforts to find partners and raise money for the project.
-Stephen Lawson, IDG News Service (San Francisco Bureau)
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