The effort stands in stark contrast to Cambridge's neighbor across the Charles River, Boston, which has resisted any citywide Wi-Fi deployment. There are, however, several Wi-Fi hotspots in Boston, including one based on Roofnet located in a low-income section of that city.
The Cambridge municipal effort had its origins in a desire by Cambridge city officials to provide inexpensive or free Internet access to low-income residents. According to published reports, City Councilwoman Henrietta Davis spearheaded the effort when the local cable broadband provider showed no interest in lowering its prices for low-income residents. In addition, Cambridge's Chief Information Officer Mary Hart got behind the project.
Roofnet still has overtones of an academic research project laced with community barn building in the form of assorted academics, researchers, and hackers donating their time to make it a success. Roofnet's core development came out of MIT's Artificial Intelligence Lab and the university's vice president for Information Services and Technology Jerrold Grochow pitched in with valuable support. Another key player is Kurt Keville, a research specialist at MIT's Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies. Volunteer Bob Keyes is also CEO of networking company XA Net.
'We want to take Roofnet out of the academic world and move it into the community," said Keyes. "We want to do a technology transfer, although officially it's still a test network."
Keyes, who links with Roofnet from an antenna about one mile distant, said the network's mesh technology has been working well so far. The core service is based around a $15 Netgear WGT634U router; the chip inside the router is replaced with a custom-designed chip as well as custom software, much of which is in the public domain. Users with Wi-Fi 802.11b capability on their computers simply log on to the service once and they are up and running, Keyes said.
"Nobody knows for sure how many nodes are up," said Keyes, adding that the mesh network can handle many users. "Theoretically we could have a million users." An important part of the philosophy behind Roofnet is easy access and inexpensive accessibility.