Cambridge Plans Wireless Square

Harvard Square might no longer be Fleet, but it will soon be high-speed.

At a public meeting yesterday, the city’s Cable TV, Telecommunications and Public Utilities Committee sat down with Council members and local residents to hash out the details of its plan to provide free wireless Internet access to all of Harvard Square—indoors and outdoors—within the next year and a half.

The council, led by Cambridge Director of Information Technology Mary P. Hart, announced plans in February to eventually blanket all of Cambridge’s approximately 6.5 square miles with wireless Internet access. Most of the area around MIT already has wireless access, and the city has recently deployed wireless access throughout Central Square.

Providing wireless access to Harvard Square, however, is proving more complicated than the Central Square project because of the lack of city-owned buildings in Harvard Square.

“We only have legal right to install on city buildings” such as court houses and police stations, Hart said.

In order to connect the Square, including all of its residential, commercial, and outdoor spaces to the Internet, the city is therefore negotiating to use wiring that has already been set up by private businesses, according to Hart.

The city also hopes to utilize Harvard University’s physical network—particularly for providing wireless access to the Palmer Street area near the Harvard Coop—but Hart said that Cambridge has yet to discuss this plan with Harvard.

In other parts of the city, Cambridge’s technology department has installed Internet antennas on top of fire stations, public libraries, and other public buildings.

But Harvard Square’s fire station does not have such an antenna; technicians say it would be useless. The station is surrounded by the Yard and other Harvard property that is already connected to the Internet through the University.

“We are looking for places in the Square,” said Hart. But the antenna locations considered so far are “not giving us the range we need to get into people’s homes,” Hart said.

Henrietta Davis, a city councilor involved in the project, said that connecting Harvard Square would be a major step in the city-wide Cambridge Public Internet project.

“This is on the top of the list of things that could help Harvard Square thrive,” she said. “Its a nice succinct little project, and helps works towards making the whole city connected.”

Davis also said that Cambridge wants to remain on the cutting edge.

“We would like to see ourselves as a cutting edge and not as a trailing edge city,” she said. “We will be pushing to see that this starts happening.”

While planning the project, city councillors are trying hard to keep the final cost to Cambridge residents as low as possible, since one of the project’s motivations is to provide Internet access to low-income Cantabrigians.

Another concern for planners of the wireless project is online security.

Ashley C. “Ash” Dyer, a recent MIT graduate, worked as a student on a public-access wireless network for people near MIT’s campus.

He is now working with Cambridge administrators on a “tunneling” program that would protect the privacy of individuals users in the city-wide system by encrypting their information and directing it away from the public.

“We build a Chinese wall that encapsulates their data,” Dyer said. “We want this to be safe for property owners.”

—Staff writer Shifra B. Mincer can be reached at smincer@fas.harvard.edu.