Look Out, Comcast and Verizon: Bicoastal Startups Are Bringing Free Wi-Fi to Harvard Square (and Elsewhere Soon, We Hope)

Why isn’t there free Wi-Fi everywhere? I ask this as I sit in an Espresso Vivace in Seattle, typing away and enjoying free wireless (and a truly terrific latte—easily an 8.5 on the Huang scale). Being new to the city and still in the process of setting up connectivity, I’m acutely aware of any and all hotspots I find.

It seems large-scale municipal Wi-Fi hasn’t fared well lately. Until recently, EarthLink operated networks in Philadelphia, San Francisco, and New Orleans, but it was taking huge losses and had to shut them down. (Turns out the systems were too expensive to install and maintain.)

So I was very interested to hear about the free public Wi-Fi service that switched on yesterday in a ceremony in Harvard Square, one of my old haunts. I always wondered why Cambridge didn’t have its own network—you can sometimes get onto local university networks, but it can be a pain. It just shouldn’t be that hard.

The story of the Harvard project goes back to August 2006. Denise Jillson, executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association (HSBA), says she was walking through Harvard Yard when she bumped into Cambridge city councillor Henrietta Davis, who chairs the council’s cable TV, telecom, and public utilities committee. Davis mentioned that the city was interested in providing Wi-Fi access, primarily for children and families. “There had been some appropriation of money for this project, and I thought, boy, I want to get a piece of that action,” says Jillson.

Easier said than done. A year went by while Jillson worked with the city on the technology and legal ramifications. Meanwhile the technology kept changing, and the city and the association eventually came to the decision that public money would be better spent on Internet access for people living in affordable housing.

So Jillson began looking for an outside engineering company that would help set up a reasonably priced network. Mesh networks tend to be cheaper to build and operate than traditional Wi-Fi networks—instead of costing more than $1,000 per node, mesh-network routers can cost only a few hundred dollars each.

Enter Meraki, an MIT spinoff based in Mountain View, CA, which is backed in part by Google … Next Page »

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