Sunday, June 23, 2024

Cambridge is already considered one of the most wired communities in the world, but the wires — or, in this case, the lack of wires — lead mostly to its wealthiest residents.

A committee will be in place within the next month to look at providing free, citywide wireless Internet access, city officials said, with a particular focus on access for low-income residents.

Cambridge is likely to leap past communities looking into similar efforts, though, such as Boston and Brookline, because it’s building from strong areas of wireless access at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“Cambridge is in a unique position regarding wireless coverage,” said Kurt Keville, a systems administrator at the institute who’s working with the city on the wireless project. “We have the greatest density of wireless access points, geographically, under municipal Wi-Fi consideration. The big two universities in town represent probably 7,000 or 8,000 wireless point of presence alone.

“We know this because officially MIT has 2,800 on their internal wireless network. Harvard has a similar number,” Keville said. “And that’s just the official ones.”

A computer equipped to pick up wireless Internet signals — usually a laptop — has ripe pickings in a city where such signals are offered by everything from the countercultural Harvest Co-op Market in Central Square to the counterintuitive Porter Square Pizzeria Uno.

“There’s a lot of coverage here already,” said Mary Hart, the city’s director of management information services. “We went on top of our roof [with a computer] and found about 90 networks.

“Central Square is wireless, basically. But there has to be consistent service,” she said. “It’s touch and go. From one day to the next, you’re not sure what you’ll get.”

Preliminary effort

There’s no timeline or dollar amount placed on the project, officials stress. So far they’re just gathering committee members, including tech leaders from city schools, Harvard and MIT, and employees of Cisco Systems, the San Jose, Calif., networking company with Boston offices.

The institute is heavily involved because it is already propagating wireless access with a program called Roofnet, Hart said. Wireless evangelists sign up and get an antenna to put in a window. There now are 20 such nodes extending an MIT wireless signal, strongest between Central and Kendall squares. The school considers this an infrastructure for experiments aiming “to understand the nature of large-scale wireless networks.” It just happens to be science that lets someone sit in Café La Brioche and play “Bejeweled” over lunch.

If the city is to be covered by a cloud of wireless access, then, the vapor is heaviest near its institutions of higher learning and the four municipal office buildings, including City Hall. City libraries and schools are coming along. Fletcher Maynard Academy and the Graham and Parks Alternative Public School are already wireless, said Jeff LaPlante, chief technological officer for Cambridge Public Schools. The Morse and Maria L. Baldwin schools will be by the end of the year.

LaPlante has practical information to share with the nascent wireless committee, since he’s been involved in seeking grant money for the carts of Apple laptop computers wheeled between groups of children at the schools. The information has the potential to serve as a model for the city and to be useful in its own right.

“There may be ways we can utilize educational grants to fund wireless technology in the schools and extend it out,” LaPlante said. “Our access points can be part of a greater Cambridge wireless plan.”

Even the scope of expanding wireless access at the schools is uncertain, though, waiting to find out where it falls on administrative and budgetary to-do lists.

Need for computers

The citywide plan raises similar questions. After creating a wireless cloud for the entire city, how will Cambridge ensure low-income residents get a chance to use it? They’re the least likely to have a computer in the first place, let alone a laptop with a wireless card. It’s “one of the big topics,” Hart said, “finding grant money to subsidize equipment.”

Maybe half the residents in low-income housing at Fresh Pond Apartments have computers, most desktop models, said resident Michael Pierre, 22. And Internet access at the 502 apartments is limited to dial-up.

Pat Casola, chairwoman of the apartments’ tenants association, confirmed that, and agreed the wireless access would be valuable.

“We do have a lot of students that live here, a lot of high school students, and a lot of people with Internet, but not high-speed,” she said. There was once a Harvard-run computer class available at the apartments, but it disappeared — and the computers with it.

Cisco may be able to help, and the city’s effort happens to be taking place around the MIT Media Lab, whose chairman and co-founder, Nicholas Negroponte, is creating a $100 laptop to begin distribution by late 2006 or early 2007. Joe Jacobson, director of Alewife-based E Ink Corp., is another principal in the project. But those laptops are intended to be manufactured and sent to the world’s poorest children and may act more as an example than as a source of hardware.

No worries

Two things that aren’t worrying Hart are legal issues, as the city’s Internet equipment lease allows for providing free wireless, and lost business for either small Cambridge-based Internet service providers or giants such as Comcast.

“We’re talking about a base level of service,” she said. “As you go up levels of performance, it starts to cost you something.” While free wireless allows “flexibility and freedom of being able to take a laptop anywhere … when I want to be using my computer, I would feel more comfortable being hard-wired.”

Also, those who would be relying on city wireless are not people who would be spending $50 a week on Internet access, she said.

A worker at Cyber Access Internet Communications Inc. agreed the city’s plans are no threat to her business.

“People who are concerned about security will never use a wireless connection,” said Alicia Gongora, operations manager for the company, which has about 2,000 customers from Massachusetts to New York, including those “who could go with a better deal, but they’re still in business with us because of the detailed service we provide. I always answer the phone.”

Wireless business is not something Cyber Access pursues, Gongora said. She thinks Cambridge’s effort is great.

In the end, actually creating a citywide wireless network — mostly by cobbling together and expanding existing wireless nodes — may be the least troublesome task the committee will consider.

“Working together would be nice, since we are all sharing substantially the same frequencies and tend to get into each other’s way quite a bit,” said Keville, of MIT. “[But] we see the barriers to keeping this from becoming a reality citywide substantially more in the regulatory-and-security camp than in any technical limitations.”