Thursday, February 19, 2009

Tufts Daily reports Somerville to consider citywide Wi-Fi

Katherine Sawyer, Tufts Daily
Published: Thursday, February 19, 2009
Updated: Thursday, February 19, 2009

Somerville residents could potentially one day enjoy free wireless Internet, care of the city government, Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone recently announced.

The city issued on Dec. 30 a document designed to gauge companies' interest in providing wireless broadband installation and management services. The municipality has since begun receiving responses and reviewing potential options.

Many cities around the country already provide wireless access to their residents free of charge. In Somerville, the service will most likely be low-bandwidth.

"We would like to see models that include open access hotspots in key business districts, as well as a way to help low-income households gain at least some access to the Internet via a portal supported by advertising or some other revenue flow," Curtatone said in a press release. "This wouldn't necessarily be high-speed, broadband access, but it would give users, including local students, a no-cost way to check email or run text-based searches."

The City of Somerville has approached the project with an eye toward providing access to the entire community.

"We're looking for the best benefit to our residents in terms of services and costs. City of Somerville spokesperson Jaclyn Rossetti told the Daily. "We want to make sure that everything is going through a fair process, transparent to the public so that we all know what's going on."

To that end, the government has reached out to companies and asked for proposals.

"We're looking for a company that would provide speedy, no-cost service that would help us bridge the Internet divide and allow us to make basic Internet for research purposes available to those who don't have it," Tom Champion, another city spokesperson, told the Daily.

The City is also exploring the possibility that Somerville's density and Congress' recent passage of a federal stimulus package may help with costs.

"Unlike larger cities that run into road bocks, we have some advantages in the market because we are a dense community, and that makes it less expensive," City of Somerville spokesperson Tom Champion told the Daily.

If all goes well and the city can find a provider, officials hope to receive some federal support for the project. Champion believes that federal stimulus funding could cover the some of the costs of building the wireless network, making set-up costs lower for prospective companies.

The project meets the requirements for federal stimulus funding because it is "shovel-ready" in that it could begin immediately, would be leveraging public or private investment, would create short- and long-term job opportunities, and would stimulate economic development, according to Champion.

City officials expressed hope about potential responses to their request for company interest because of the open nature of the project. Ideally, Champion said, the service will be open to a variety of providers.

"What we'd like is to have a private company come in and act as a wholesaler, make bandwidth available to a number of providers, and create a no-cost portal to public," he said.

At this point, the city remains in the process of gauging what types of business models exist for establishing Wi-Fi services. According to Curtatone's press release, the next step could involve requesting additional information from interested companies, pursuing the project with one particular firm or waiting for economic conditions to improve and then asking again.

City officials hope that Somerville's natural advantages for the creation of a wireless network will attract prospective Wi-Fi companies.

"This is a rapidly-changing field, and we don't want to tie ourselves to any one approach," Curtatone said in the press release. "In times likes these, we don't have the money to deploy Wi-Fi on our own, but we can offer a good network of fiber access points and access to city buildings and light poles for relay points."

Champion stressed the preliminary nature of the undertaking.

"We're just trying to find out, given our city's options and advantages," he said, "if is there any interest in establishing a private market that could serve the entire city."


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