Friday, April 12, 2024

Training coordinator Matt Landry works in 2008 with participants to learn more about their personal computers. During the training, participants learned how to connect to the municipal Wi-Fi network at Newtowne Court in Cambridge.

Cambridge’s youth centers and parks are being equipped as free Wi-Fi hotspots, with the newest center, in West Cambridge, already functioning as one. The youth centers are the priority, with assessments to be done over the summer and gear installed and working within “several months,” said Linda Turner, information technology project manager with the city.

Her department is in the planning stages for two of the city’s many parks, she said.

This would probably have been mentioned Wednesday at a Cable TV, Telecommunications and Public Utilities Committee meeting about the digital divide, but the meeting was canceled when key personnel weren’t able to attend, an aide to chairwoman Henrietta Davis said Tuesday. The meeting will be rescheduled for the fall.

The wiring of youth centers and parks rates a mention in such a meeting even though it’s not really a solution to the gulf of opportunity between people with good Internet access and people without, meaning those with low or no income.

A step the city has taken — a pilot program providing Wi-Fi at the Newtowne Court housing project on Main Street between Central and Kendall squares — was “successful” and “can certainly be replicated,” Turner said last week, but at a cost of more than $25 per home it is not something the city is working on.

Even the wiring of youth centers and parks is in low gear until the new fiscal year starts in July, she said.

Two successes without emulation

The roughly two-year Newtowne Court project, started in the summer of 2006, took $50,000 in grant funding and money from Cambridge Community Television. It resulted in giving wireless Internet to 268 homes and more than 800 residents by extending signals from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as well as hardware in the form of signal repeaters and refurbished computers. “We did a good job,” Turner said, but the city’s involvement is complete, and now CCTV maintains the program.

While a success, the program was also a significant step back from the plans of 2005, when there were plans to bring free Wi-Fi to the entire city.

In several meetings this year, city councillors have expressed relief the plans were abandoned. They cite similar, money-losing experiments in cities such as Philadelphia and New Orleans, although Turner can also point to a town where municipal Wi-Fi has been a success: nearby Brookline, where some 57,000 people can get a signal anywhere within its 6.8 square miles. (Cambridge has about 106,000 people over 7.1 square miles.)

Here’s how Brookline described its wireless at its July 18, 2007, rollout:

In addition to paid wireless Internet access for consumers and businesses, limited free access will be available in certain commercial areas and public parks. Also, the Brookline Housing Authority will have access to free Internet service in their community rooms. The packages made available by Galaxy to residents and businesses will be less costly for similar plan types offered by other companies.

Brookline’s Wi-Fi was done in a public-private partnership with Galaxy Internet Services that, like Cambridge’s plan, uses multiradio mesh technology. In describing the benefits of the technology, Davis’ committee said mesh “does not need to be hard-wired and can communicate to another device that is not hard-wired, but will look for equipment that is.”

Newtowne Court relies on mesh, just as the Cambridge’s citywide Wi-Fi cloud would have, with some repeaters being hard-wired into the city’s fiber-optic cable. If a resident wanted to connect to Cambridge Public Internet after its Meraki routers were installed, they most likely would have had to buy their own indoor Meraki unit, Turner said Tuesday. The cost of mesh was given as $150,000 per square mile in May 2006, but a year and a half later the city was backing away from the plan, with minutes from an October 2007 meeting saying:

The wireless plan would cost $1 million and would not cover the entire city. The digital divide project for Newtowne Court … cannot be duplicated throughout the City. If its effectiveness is shown, state or some philanthropic source of funds would be secured.  … Cambridge has good distribution of fiber access. … Most municipalities have found that wireless does not pay. Some cities have withdrawn or are rethinking provision of citywide wireless. Cambridge can do citywide wireless incrementally. Broadband will come to Cambridge next year. Cambridge should do the buildout and then use broadband when it comes to Cambridge. This could be used to bargain with the vendor.

Brookline’s plan worked because of Galaxy, Davis said Tuesday, and not many for-profit companies would enter a similar agreement now.

The Fresh Pond Apartments, on Rindge Avenue near Alewife, remain wired only for dial-up Internet access. (Photo: Rachel Ford James)

Backing away from the plan meant abandoning the people of the Fresh Pond Apartments, on Rindge Avenue near the Alewife T stop. The three towers, which are not city-owned, still are wired only for dial-up access to the Internet. There has been no improvements by the state and federal governments in the five years since citywide Wi-Fi was first considered, residents said Tuesday, resulting in resident students skipping desktop and laptop computers to connect with the Internet via smartphones. The tiny screens and slow connectivity make them not much better than a dial-up modem.

Dial-up is used by 5.6 million U.S. households, according to a February report published by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. That’s less than 4.7 percent and a giant drop even since 2003, the agency said, when 38.6 million U.S. households used dial-up.

Residents called the city’s move “bogus” and wonder about the money it’s been able to find for other technology — such as surveillance cameras.

But from the city’s perspective, even the technology isn’t ready. The flaw in relying on a model of repeated signal is that the system breaks down when one person’s computer shuts down, Turner noted last week. The signal stops at that missing computer until it is turned back on and the repeater kicks in again.

National and international challenges

This all pales next to the possibility of the hard-wired, ultrafast Internet offered by Google in a nationwide competition to be decided next year. Cambridge is among the 1,100 communities vying for its residents to be among the 50,000 to 500,000 people getting fiber-optic cable moving data 100 times faster than usual. Officials such as City Manager Robert W. Healy and city councillor Leland Cheung are realistic, meaning skeptical, about the city’s chances for winning and the resulting costs.

But the city is in the awkward position of promoting Kendall Square as a technology supercenter while drifting backward in a ranking important to the geeks needed to populate it., in looking annually at broadband penetration, broadband access and the proliferation of Wi-Fi, has sent Boston (including Cambridge) back to No. 12 in its list of the most-wired cities, roughly where it was for 2007-08, but a drop of seven positions from the No. 5 spot last year. In the top five: Raleigh, N.C., Atlanta, Seattle, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

Cambridge does not have data by which it can rank itself independently of Boston, Turner said, but the lack of projects during the recession years has certainly contributed to the slip in rankings.

Other countries are surging ahead wholesale. The New York Times reported June 14 that Singapore “could soon be the first country blanketed with a fiber optic infrastructure so fast that it would enable the contents of a DVD to be downloaded in only a few seconds.”

The new network, stimulated by an investment of 1 billion Singapore dollars, or about $700 million, from the government, will help the country leap ahead in an international race to roll out faster broadband speeds, a competition in which several Asian countries are in leading positions.

While policy makers in many places are still debating their high-speed broadband strategies, considering, for example, whether development should be led by the public or private sector, broadband users in some parts of Asia already have access to the next generation of high-speed networks.

Japan and Hong Kong have been leading the way … South Korea, one of the world’s most wired places, has also announced plans to complete a new broadband network offering one gigabit per second in all major cities by 2013.

A final thing for Davis’ committee to consider when it meets again also comes from the Times. On June 6, it reported that “Some experts believe excessive use of the Internet, cell phones and other technologies can cause us to become more impatient, impulsive, forgetful and even more narcissistic.”

“Typically, the concern about our dependence on technology is that it detracts from our time with family and friends in the real world. But psychologists have become intrigued by a more subtle and insidious effect of our online interactions. It may be that the immediacy of the Internet, the efficiency of the iPhone and the anonymity of the chat room change the core of who we are, issues that Dr. Aboujaoude explores in a book, ‘Virtually You: The Internet and the Fracturing of the Self,’ to be released next year.”

“There is also no easy way to conquer a dependence on technology,” the Times says, and it may as well be saying it about cities as well as people.

Cambridge must get as hooked as possible, though, and its residents fall behind if it’s not as hooked up as well as it can be.