Article

Broadband Wi-Fi access a community dream

Zach Church, News Writer
BOSTON -- Brian Worobey has this idea that the Internet isn't so much about getting information as it is about exchanging it.

And that works best when there are more people on the Internet. Simple concept, but it is what Worobey strives for both in his day job -- until recently he was CIO at the Museum of Science, Boston -- and in his volunteer work trying to wire the city.

As a key advisor for

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openairboston.net, Worobey is trying to make Internet access happen for Boston's 500,000-plus residents, as well as its visitors, workers and droves of area students. That's a high-minded proposition. Success means near-seamless access that would bring the value of the Internet out of the suburbs and business world and into impoverished communities. It would also mean national recognition.

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Anybody want a free Wi-Fi network?
Because so far, nobody has pulled it off.

Every week brings news of another municipal Wi-Fi project biting the dust. What often starts as a mayoral pledge ends up an abandoned project that sees private-sector partners cutting losses and leaving town.

Boston hasn't fared much better, failing to meet self-imposed deadlines and fundraising goals. Still, its project isn't dead.

"I think that the fatal flaw of the ones that are crashing now is the miscalculation of the value of the network," Worobey said. And he's not talking about financial value -- the cost of planting wireless access points on light polls, rooftops and in windows.

Instead, Worobey is referencing the value of the service to the people it is intended to serve. Take a look at the customer, neighborhood by neighborhood, Worobey said, and a wireless city could start to look possible.

"There's a way in which we could have chucked a bunch of access points around and turned them on," he said. "Could we shove a lot of hubs up and turn them on? Yes. What a waste of time."

One neighborhood at a time

That would have been the only option if openairboston.net, a nonprofit that sprang from the work of a city-commissioned task force, wanted to meet a 2008 goal of lacing the entire city with wireless.

Instead, the group has moved Wi-Fi service into one square mile of Boston -- a section of residential neighborhoods in Dorchester and Roxbury known as Grove Hall. So far the network has had nearly 4,500 unique users in a neighborhood of about 21,000 people. Now work is beginning on a similar-sized section near Fenway Park and Northeastern University. That's nowhere near close to complete.

"I put that out last year. We're not going to make '08," said openairboston.net CEO Pamela D.A. Reeve, who founded payment processing and authorization company Lightbridge Inc. before leaving the firm in 2004.

Reeve said she's not into the deadline game anymore, though she wants the Fenway section ready by early fall. The goal is citywide, but the project is perpetually "in progress."

That's OK with Worobey, who spent 12 years as CIO at the Museum of Science after IT stints at Boston College and Harvard Business School. Worobey left the Museum in June, part of a finance-based cost reduction that cut staff by 10% and eliminated the IT department. He is now focused on startup and consulting work.

In brighter days at the museum, though, Worobey considered the end goals of his day job and openairboston.net to be the same: shared knowledge, shared by as many people as possible.

It is "the whole idea of trying to find ways to reach learners where and when they want to learn," Worobey said. In the museum, that meant a museum website inviting personal testimonials about the sport of baseball. It meant a wiki-like science project examining the habits of fireflies. ("There's experts out there," Worobey assured, speaking of firefly watchers as "citizen scientists.")

With broadband access, it's about putting people on computers and creating that type of community within communities. Worobey's only hard rule is that the access must be broadband. If Wi-Fi turns out to not be the best technology for parts of Boston, then so be it.

"We are nonbiased at openairboston," he said. "We want to get to you whatever way it makes sense to get to you."

Right now, they're getting to the Grove Hall neighborhood through 53 access points made by BelAir Technologies LLC. Those are connected to an "aerial ring" of wireless gear made by GigaBeam Corp. That all goes back to two main fiber access points. Service is handled by AboveNet Inc. The service is free for six months, but will then switch to $9.95 per month. Openairboston.net draws other funding from sponsors and in-kind donations from tech companies. In the future it may ask for a "modest" amount of cash from the city, Worobey said.

Pricing hasn't been figured yet for the Fenway neighborhood. And the technical strategy will be a bit different there. In Grove Hall, openairboston.net had to make sure everything was handled up front, down to partnering with a group that trains residents on computer basics -- Microsoft Windows and Word, among other skills -- and provides low-cost rehabbed computers.

Up in the Fenway neighborhood, demographics are different. The area comprises young professionals and students, mostly from Boston University and Northeastern University. So Worobey said he's looking at an open source mesh network, one with limited reach that may still be worth a try. As for access points, he said he wouldn't be surprised if he ends up asking residents to stick one in their windows.

Worobey said the plans are developed based on the needs and perceived usage of a particular neighborhood. It won't all work, but then again neither has the 'wire and go' strategy of other major cities.

"Where they intersect and overlap -- great," Worobey said. "Where they crash and burn we have to find a different way."

Hardly trouble free

And everything sure points to crash and burn. Spring brought a damning article in The Boston Globe that addressed openairboston.net's failure to meet the 2008 deadline and fundraising goals. City Councilor John Tobin Jr., an early advocate of openairboston.net, was critical as well.

"I want this to succeed," Tobin said in June. "I don't care who gets the credit for it. I want openairboston to succeed. I don't feel good about it, though.

"I just think the $16 to $20 million price tag to raise funds for this -- I don't think it's realistic," he added.

Tobin cited the lack of partnerships with major service providers like Comcast and Verizon as evidence that something is off-center with openairboston's plan. He also said the nonprofit is too close to the city for its own good.

"I'd rather have a big company or a responsible company run the thing," Tobin said. "The last thing I need is some guy calling me saying his Internet is down at 8 o'clock. I just think the city should remove itself as much as possible."

Worobey acknowledged and said he understood Tobin's concern about openairboston.net's funding. But he argued that the group has the money it needs to move forward at a respectable pace, though not a rapid one.

Where they intersect and overlap -- great. Where they crash and burn we have to find a different way.
Brian Worobey
CIOMuseum of Science, Boston
"We are funded to do the pilot in the Fenway with no problems. We're starting to look at funding for our next effort," he said, adding that openairboston.net will still need to find new sources of cash from area foundations and universities.

Six weeks after the article ran, the Globe ran an op-ed by Worobey laying out his slow-and-steady approach to citywide wireless. Though not as dire as in Philadelphia, where business partner EarthLink Inc. pulled up stakes and ran, the situation in Boston remains untested and far from complete.

So why the hopefulness from Worobey? Reeve credits him with having the "experience and heart" for the job.

"What I needed was certainly technical acumen, but also understanding of a broad-based project," she said. "His DNA is very community-oriented and very inclusive."

So though it remains to be seen if Boston can pull off the ultimate municipal wireless coup, Worobey won't go down for lack of trying.

"I just think there's something there," he said, discussing his dreams of sharing knowledge and creating a "mesh network of learning." Downstairs from his museum office on one of his last Fridays as CIO, thousands of schoolchildren streamed into the museum on field trips.

"Communication is such a rich entry point," Worobey said. "So is baseball. So are fireflies."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Zach Church, News Writer


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