Surfing Around the Square

City of Cambridge provides free access between Au Bon Pain and Coop bookstore

Unnamed photo
Laura C. Mckiernan

Mary C. Joyce, a Kennedy School student, uses Harvard and Cambridge Public wireless outside of Au Bon Pain yesterday afternoon.


Harvard Square is finally going wireless—or at least part of it.

In the latest move in a city-wide pilot program, the City of Cambridge has brought free wireless access to the area roughly between Au Bon Pain and the Coop bookstore.

Cambridge is taking a unique approach to eventually making the 7.1 square-mile city wireless. Rather than using infrastructure technology, as has been common, the city has elected to use a more efficient method using mesh technology instead.

A major benefit of a mesh network over an infrastructure network is that it is cheaper since it requires fewer access points and therefore less wiring and installation.

Harvard has been involved in the pilot program by offering advice and the use of buildings. Of the three access points in the Square, two are located in Harvard-owned buildings.

While city officials plan to provide free wireless to all Cambridge residents, recent progress has been slow. Organizers are awaiting a soon-to-be published feasibility report before the pilot program can be expanded to all of Cambridge.

“So far, about 3,000 unique users have been using the service,” says Fatahe B. Mekonnen, the program manager for the wireless project. “The feasibility study is helping us determine user demographics and best deployment practice.”

Nevertheless, computer experts warn that the new free wireless service will not replace the need for University-supplied internet access.

“[The Cambridge Public Internet] would not be sufficient for students,” said Oliver Thomas, the senior manager of Computing Help Services at MIT. “It was intended to provide internet access to residents, but not compete with high speed service providers.”

Thomas added that the free network’s speed—which would depend on location, weather, the number of users, and the users’ online activities—could vary between one and 54 megabytes. In comparison, University high-speed wireless internet usually runs consistently at 54 megabytes per second. [SEE CORRECTION BELOW]

CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, the Sept. 19 news article "Surfing Around the Square" incorrectly stated the speed of on-campus networks and the free wireless network in Cambridge. On-campus networks run as fast as 54 megabits per second--not 54 megabytes per second--while the wireless network is expected to be at least 1 megabit per second.