By Sabrina Schnur
BU News Service
BOSTON – After Marty Walsh was elected mayor of Boston in 2014, one of his administration’s first acts was to announce a plan to expand a free Wi-Fi network in public spaces throughout the city. However, a recent dive into Boston’s free public Wi-Fi network by BU News Service revealed discrepancies in coverage in some neighborhoods.
Wicked Free Wi-Fi – launched in April of 2014 – was intended to help improve digital equity in low-income neighborhoods and increase economic development throughout the city, according to a press release announcing the expansion of the network.
“Wi-Fi access plays a significant role in every aspect of our lives, from learning to earning,” Walsh said at the April 2014 press conference about Wicked Free Wi-Fi. “Our goal is to strengthen and expand our public network and reach more families and businesses.”
Grove Hall would be the first of 20 neighborhood “Main Street” programs the city would target for Wicked Free Wi-Fi access. In 2015, the network was expanded to the Main Streets Districts in Roslindale, Dudley Square and Hyde Park according to a September 2015 press release from the city.
Three years later residents are still confused and some even angered over the lack of public, free Wi-Fi in several areas.
Ed Gaskin, executive director of Greater Grove Hall Main Streets, said at first his neighborhood was told they couldn’t even apply for the program because the city did not want to compete with commercial vendors providing Wi-Fi.
Gaskin said the city then announced they would be holding a press conference and installing it throughout Grove Hall. Gaskin said this is where the problems began.
“There were lots of places where there was no signal at all,” Gaskin said. “The firm that they had originally hired to install all the towers and the signals and the little repeaters, they had done it incorrectly. There was basically no signal.”
Gaskin used the Grove Hall Public Library at 41 Geneva Ave. as an example. The city has two towers listed at this location according to the public spreadsheet. This building is also connected to the Jeremiah E. Burke High School, which has three towers as well. Gaskin said the city wanted to put at least one on this building due to its height but the signal only went in certain directions around the tower.
“If you were standing in front of the library or you were standing in front of the community center or the school, you got no signal because the signal doesn’t go down, it only went across,” Gaskin said. “Even though you could be within 15 feet of the tower, you couldn’t pick up the signal.”
There were also several locations in Grove Hall that the city had listed addresses which either didn’t exist or were private houses, and had no tower on the property.
For instance, Gaskin said 683 Warren St., the location of a tower, was not a real address.
“Mattapan’s Finest Barbers says their address is 653 Warren St., they’re the last building,” Gaskin said. “There is nothing higher than 653.”
Gaskin said the city also placed “big lime green Wicked Free Wi-Fi” signs around the city.
“One of the photos I have is me standing under the free Wi-Fi sign that has no Wi-Fi,” Gaskin said. “There’s no signal there.”
Gaskin said he contacted the city and a representative was sent out to determine signal strength. It was then determined several towers would need to be moved and more would have to be added.
“After that they never got the budget to finish the project,” Gaskin said. “We’ve been waiting for the last couple of years for funding for them to finish that project.”
Gaskin said he’s reached out the city numerous times over the years but is never given a definitive answer on when the work will happen.
“Now it’s a capital budget item, you don’t know if they’re going to fix it,” Gaskin said. “You can say you want it fixed and you can get in contact with city councilors and stuff like that, but that doesn’t mean anything is going to happen, that’s just their way of reporting back.”
Gaskin said he was disappointed with the way the city had cut off Grove Hall.
“You have a news conference, you announce this is what you’re doing, you pay to have it done,” Gaskin said. “It’s not installed correctly so then you have to have it redone. You have people who come out, they do the remapping of it, figure out how to fix it. Then there’s no funding for the implementation to make what you said three years ago actually come to fruition.”
The data the city has posted has not been updated in nearly two years, and many towers listed still say “need verification” in the notes. Several of the addresses listed have also proven to not have Wi-Fi at all.
“Perhaps this suggests that we need to differently prioritize the way that we communicate data about this to the public,” Schwieger said.
Grove Hall’s lack of funding, Schweiger said, means the city was not allocating capital to the project anymore and only using the operating budget to maintain current towers.
“The last couple of years we have allocated for operations and maintenance of existing [towers] but not for capital for Wicked Free Wi-Fi,” Schweiger said. “If there are things that require new installation it’s possible that there was no capital, this sounds like an incredibly awful bureaucratic excuse.”
The original project lead, Alice Santiago, has retired leaving Schweiger and colleague Sarah Trager in charge.
Schwieger said towers listed at addresses that don’t exist could be because of street lights, which is a common practice in Wi-Fi infrastructure, but admitted the city doesn’t have the data to prove whether a tower is in a streetlight or just improperly labeled.
Additionally, several addresses listed such as 8 Stanwood, 11 Charles St and the corner of Sunderland Street and Blue Hill Avenue, do not have Wicked Free Wi-Fi, which Schweiger said is disappointing but “not surprising.”
“When we look at the data we see that access point was down at that time,” Schweiger said. “[Or] that access point is no longer there, which is obviously not ideal. We’re experiencing in real time that this is bad and not ideal”
Schweiger said as of this fall the Department of Innovation and Technology started having bi-weekly meetings to improve the public information and fix these discrepancies.
“We have not been as focused and rigorous as we clearly should be and really making sure we should be coding things correctly, tagging them correctly entering data right then and there, correctly,” Schweiger said.
Schwieger said the city’s next mission is to get the city’s high-speed fiber optic network, Boston Optical Network, or BOnet, into all Boston Public Schools. Schwieger said the city recognizes schools have many online needs for research and testing.
“It’s a very high priority that all of our schools have the speed and quality of connectivity that we know they need to do video enhanced learning,” Schwieger said. “That’s a part of most educational environments these days and you need very reliable high speed connections to enable that.”
Several public schools purported to be connected to Wicked Free Wi-Fi already may not be taking advantage of it.
Mather Elementary in Dorchester is reported on the spreadsheet to have three of the 167 towers from the 2017 list of towers, but an operator at the school said: “I’ve never heard of that program,” and a visit to the school proved there was no Wicked Free Wi-Fi.
Schweiger said the schools many be operating on Boston Public School Wi-Fi, and admitted listing this as a location for Wicked Free Wi-Fi is inaccurate.
Similarly, Brighton High School should have two towers, but Alana, a front desk employee, said they do not have any such network.
“We don’t have it. [I] don’t believe it was ever an option and we wouldn’t use it,” she said.
Less than a year after Walsh announced Wicked Free in Boston, LinkNYC premiered with public Wi-Fi, free domestic phone calls and USB ports to replace payphones in all five boroughs. The program was subsidized entirely by ads although reviewsare mixed due to privacy concerns.