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MIT and City Collaborate To Provide Free Wireless

By Marie Y. Thibault

A collaboration with MIT researchers may provide Cambridge with a free, city-wide, wireless internet service as early as late summer. The project will rely on a mesh networking technology that allows individual computers to become new access points, projecting the reach of the network beyond its original antennas.

The main goal of the project is to provide internet access to Cantabrigians who live in public housing, said Cambridge Chief Information Officer Mary P. Hart, though the resulting infrastructure will have a far wider benefit for city residents.

Jerrold M. Grochow ’68, vice president for Information Services and Technology, said he expects the maximum speed of the network to be 54 megabits per second. The speed users experience will decline as more people access the network.

Hart said that although the level of internet service will not be known until the antennas are tested, users should be able to pull up a browser and send e-mail, though they might not be able to send large pictures or view streaming video.

The initial testing phase and service will be provided by MIT free of charge to Cambridge, Kurt L. Keville ’90, a research specialist at the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies at MIT, said in an e-mail. But if MIT has underestimated the traffic on the network, the service will have a charge rather than being free; however, Keville said he does not anticipate any problems because MIT’s bandwidth is “ridiculously high.” Cambridge has over 100,000 residents.

The city began considering how to provide wireless internet access at no charge last fall when the city council convened the Wireless Technology Committee, said City Councillor Henrietta Davis.

Keville said that MIT is the only university participating during the testing period. Harvard is expected to join in later, he said. Harvard representatives were not present at a Jan. 25 committee meeting.

Grochow said Cambridge is the first city to partner with its universities toward the goal of becoming wireless.

MIT applies research to help city

Cambridge’s partnership is a “golden opportunity” to rapidly set up a wireless network, Hart said, and has some benefits compared to possibilities the city had previously discussed with vendors such as Cisco Systems, Inc.

Davis, who introduced a council policy order for the formation of the committee, said she had originally been motivated to make Cambridge wireless because Comcast, which provides high-speed cable internet to Cambridge, was not responsive to any requests for discounts for lower-income citizens. “Comcast has been unproductive and uncompetitive for citizens,” Davis said. While Comcast has no local competitors in the cable internet business, Verizon Online provides DSL access to Cambridge at a range of speeds and prices generally lower than that available through Comcast.

Grochow said that the difference between MIT and Cisco is that MIT’s technology is the result of research and experimentation, while Cisco is looking to make a profit. “At MIT we’d like to do something good for the city,” Grochow said, because it “brings good publicity to the city and eventually to us, and it makes good sense.” Grochow said that Cambridge should use MIT’s technology because it is something that works right now. At the Jan. 25 meeting, committee members agreed that future partnerships with vendors such as Cisco are possible.

Two other American cities, Philadelphia and San Francisco, have gained attention for their plans to become wireless. Philadelphia is creating its own utility, Hart said, while San Francisco has partnered with Google to become a wireless city.

Traditionally, a wireless network is centralized around one wireless access point, which communicates with a wireless card in any laptop or desktop computer, Hart said. Mesh technology allows individual computers to propagate the network and act as new access points, making it unnecessary for a user to be within range of the original wireless signal, she said. Cambridge’s base wireless network will consist of a number of antennas that will be installed on the roofs of selected buildings in Cambridge, she said.

Keville said that there will be a wired MIT connection to the antenna to create a wireless access point, and at least one of the other antennas must not be blocked from the MIT antenna by any buildings. Then, the signal from MIT’s access point will jump from the MIT antenna to any other antenna within a clear line of sight and so forth, he said.

Keville, who is also a member of the committee, is building the wireless access points that will be installed. They are constructed from $15 commercial access points purchased from the software manufacturer NETGEAR, he said. The 40 milliwatt chip inside the commercial product is replaced with a 400 milliwatt chip and “hacked” to include computer code that enables the mesh technology, he said.

The first round of testing will probably take place in mid-March, Keville said. An antenna will be attached to the top of MIT building NE47, where Keville works, and another antenna will be installed on the top of 831 Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, a city-owned building adjacent to Cambridge City Hall. The strength of the signal between the two sites will be tested and the direction of the antennas will be adjusted accordingly, Keville said.

The code, which is publicly available, was written by an MIT research group called Roofnet. Daniel E. Aguayo G, a Roofnet researcher, said that though they were not the first to write a code for mesh technology, they were the first to conduct a large-scale test of their software.

Other likely choices for antenna locations are the Mount Auburn Hospital, Cambridge Health Alliance Buildings, and Cambridge Housing Authority Building.

Another issue that the committee must still address is the revenue Cambridge hotels and businesses make from providing wireless access to customers. Hart said that the plan to become wireless must be discussed with city businesses.

The city’s partnership with MIT will affect town-gown relations positively, said Davis. She said that it is useful to act together because these partnerships will help “when it comes to hard things like zoning and PILOT,” referring to the Payment in Lieu of Taxes plan through which MIT and Harvard compensate Cambridge for taxes the city does not collect because the universities are non-profit.