The Cable TV, Telecommunications and Public Utilities Committee held a public meeting on Wednesday, May 10, 2006, beginning at five o’clock and thirty-five minutes P.M. in the Sullivan Chamber.
The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the proposal for WIFI and bridging the digital divide. Present at the meeting were Councillor Henrietta Davis, Chair of the Committee, Councillor Craig Kelley, Councillor Michael A. Sullivan, Vice Mayor Timothy J. Toomey, Jr., Robert W. Healy, City Manager, Mary Hart, Information Technology Officer, Ini Tomeu, Public Information Officer, members of the WIFI and the Digital Divide Committee and Donna P. Lopez, Deputy City Clerk.
Councillor Davis opened the meeting and stated the purpose. This meeting will discuss the city’s proposal for citywide wireless internet access closing the digital divide assuring that those who do not have computers have access. The format of the meeting would be a statement from the City Manager, a presentation by Mary Hart and then public comment.
City Manager Healy stated that a Wireless Committee, consisting of members from MIT, Harvard University, Cambridge Housing Authority, School Department, the Museum of Science and the IT Department have met monthly. The municipal fiber network supports the City. The City has discussed wireless technology and helping people who cannot afford the equipment. No cost would be assessed to Cambridge residents and service could be provided through the School Department and the Cambridge Housing Authority. Washington Elms and Newtowne Court would be used as a beta site. He commented on legislation in Pennsylvania that would prohibit wireless technology.
Councillor Davis stated that the wireless service would be named the Cambridge Public Internet (CPI). She requested Mary Hart to make a presentation.
Ms. Hart stated that the wireless is an exciting project. She introduced the working beta team. Cambridge has partnered with MIT and Harvard University. MIT has a network called roof net and has extended its use to Cambridge at low or no cost. The IT Department has a plan to deploy wireless to the City buildings, schools and the library. The Sullivan Chamber is wireless. In August 2005 the City Council adopted orders relating to wireless technology and the digital divide and providing the technology into low-income housing. A wireless committee was formed and started meeting in November 2005. The wireless technology committee members are from MIT, CHA, Museum of Science, CCTV, library, Zip Car and public schools.
The Digital Divide Committee includes a member of the Harvard Extension School, the Housing Authority, the city’s Human Services Department and others. About the technology Harvard University is a closed wireless network. The CPI technology is known as munimesh. At MIT, equipment is given to the students to be placed on the windowsill. Mesh technology is more attractive because it 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 hard wired. Mesh technology is faster than dial up. The windowsill device communicates to connected equipment. The proposal is for Cambridge to have roof top antennas. Due to the low cost and the tall buildings, antennas would be installed on buildings. The equipment needed to be reviewed for the range of deployment. The Beta Project is deployed with roof top antennas. The Central Square roof top antennas are hard wired to the Cambridge and MIT networks. Beta will be up and running by the end of the summer, and will be tested for the deployment range. Radio signals cannot get through steel walls.
Once the beta is deployed, citywide recycled equipment may be deployed to low-income families. Some concerns are training, equipment, and tech support. Councillor Davis stated that the first users should be school children. There are 40 families at Washington Elms who have 8th grade students who should be the first families to use this technology.
School Committee Member Luc Schuster informed the committee that a history teacher approached him about integrating the Internet with his classes. Advanced placement students have computers; some others don’t. Students are posting their papers on the Internet. The “grade book” software is available for teachers and parents. He hoped that members of the School Committee would invite members of the wireless committee to its meeting.
Councillor Kelley expressed his concern about maintenance of the system. How much liability is the City incurring with this system. Mr. Healy stated that for this service to be free a basic system is required. The City would need to find a not for-profit partner for tech support. The IT Department would not support a citywide wireless system. Maintenance and upkeep is relatively inexpensive. Councillor Davis suggested that students at the high school could provide tech support as part of community service or RSTA.
Nolan Bowie, 3 Hastings Square, asked if there was any intention to provide full broadband service. He stated that DSL is slow, but sufficient. Computer prices have come down. Councillor Davis commented that laptop computers can be brought in to be fixed, but are more expensive than used computers. The City will have a policy on used computers stated Mr. Healy. Ms. Hart commented that Pennsylvania and Brookline are only providing one megabyte of service and are charging for the service. Cambridge will not be charging a fee for the service. An unidentified member of the public requested that the issue of network neutrality should be reviewed.
Steve Ronan, 76 Garfield Street, stated that the roof net was a good plan. His concern was that it required the investment of the City to make it successful.
Kris Locke, Program Manager, Harvard Bridge Program, explained that this program serves Harvard University service workers. The program was started this year. It restores and refurbishes computers that are given to workers. The workers are trained. The logistics of the program are still being worked out. Councillor Kelley asked what the program covers. Ms. Locke stated that to get a computer the worker would have to sign up for training. The first pilot program was done based on need. The problem is support.
In response to a question about the savings to Cambridge residents Mr. Healy stated it is hard to quantify. The high-speed connection will go forward. The objective is to provide service to those who cannot afford it. Ms. Locke stated that her program is pushing “self service.” For example Harvard is saving because checks are not being mailed. Ms. Hart stated that the cost of deploying the mesh technology is $150,000 per square mile. The objective for the usage of the service is that the potential user must have the basic service. The City will not compete with Comcast. The fee for the Earthlink Proposal in Pennsylvania would be $30.00. per month and California the fee would be $40.00 per month, stated Mr. Healy. Councillor Davis stated that the City should not invest in technology that may change in 2-3 years; this program is low cost. New York City proposal is a ten-year plan for mesh technology. It is expected that Cambridge would have this service because it is a technology city.
Todd Bytell applauded Cambridge for the digital divide work. However people who are used to fast wireless service will not use this service. Ms. Hart stated roof top service is fast. There are four roof top antennas on the GIS map. Councillor Kelley asked if the wireless antennas are smaller than cell antennas. Ms. Hart responded that the wireless antennas are different than cell antennas. The city ordinance has been researched. This is an accessory use to a public service in a public building.
School Committee Member Schuster asked what is the health hazard of antennas. Ms. Hart responding there was nothing she was aware of.
David Peterson stated that he was glad that computers would be recycled. He asked if small businesses could have their computers refurbished. Mr. Healy responded in the affirmative.
Ray Mercy commented that a good reason for this technology is the number of conferences that come to Cambridge. He suggested that it would be a good idea to demonstrate what is one megabyte. He asked if Cambridge would do a public service announcement on wireless and emergency service. There will be all kinds of users as this technology grows stated Ms. Hart. The first focus is to serve the low-income households and the community at large. The usage will be tracked. The City’s needs will be assessed as we move ahead.
Councillor Davis stated that this program demonstrates working together in partnership. The first focus is on kids who cannot do their best on their homework because of their inability to access the Internet.
Josh Patshi informed the committee that Estonia has established that it is a right for all persons to have Internet access. The economic benefit would be large to the City for a wireless network.
An unidentified male questioned the privacy guarantees. He suggested Cambridge lead the way on the privacy issues. The privacy issue is always debatable commented Ms. Hart. The object is to transport packets not to download. Councillor Davis stated that the City would investigate the privacy issue.
Councillor Davis thanked all attendees for their participation. She urged all to spread the word about the wireless technology and to get feed back.
The meeting was adjourned at six o’clock and fifty-five minutes P.M.
For the Committee,
Councillor Henrietta Davis, Chair
Cable TV, Telecommunications and Public Utilities Committee