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Boston spreads free Wi-Fi hotspots

Grove Hall launch is start of a 20-district network

Grove Hall was selected as the launch site because of its large number of low-income families who may not be able to afford the high cost of speedy broadband service.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Grove Hall was selected as the launch site because of its large number of low-income families who may not be able to afford the high cost of speedy broadband service.

Boston has switched on a free public Wi-Fi network for about 30,000 residents living in the Grove Hall neighborhood as the first step to blanketing much of the city with wireless Internet service.

Dubbed Wicked Free Wi-Fi, the network of outdoor Wi-Fi hotspots will provide Internet coverage over an area of about 1.5 square miles, making it easier for users with smartphones and tablets to access the Internet on the go.

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The signal will be strong enough for many households within the coverage area to surf the Web, check e-mail, and use social media. Connection speeds will be just strong enough to live stream a movie or video of medium quality.

And over the next two years, the Walsh administration plans to extend the Wi-Fi network to all 20 commercial districts that are part of the city’s Main Streets neighborhoods program. Those areas are eligible for federal grant money to fund community development projects.

Grove Hall was selected as the launch site because of its large number of low-income families who may not be able to afford the high cost of speedy broadband service.

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“We are launching this in a neighborhood where there’s not a lot of access to Wi-Fi,” said Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who is scheduled to announce the citywide network at an event Wednesday in Grove Hall. “There are certain parts of the city where service just goes down.”

Boston had Wi-Fi hotspots scattered around the city before this rollout — about 70 access points in a few tourist districts or at municipal properties. However, those hotspots reach just a short distance, and do not have the kind of wide-area blanket coverage as the Grove Hall network should provide.

The city stresses that the new Wi-Fi network isn’t designed to be used inside homes as a replacement for wired services that residents can buy from commercial providers. Rather it will work best for mobile users, and is largely intended to be accessed outdoors or in the restaurants and cafes around the neighborhood. It will cover the area centered around Grove Hall and reach as far as Columbus Road to the west, and Columbia Road to the east, and north up Blue Hill Avenue to the edge of Dudley Square.

The Wi-Fi access points will connect users to the Web via the city’s own high-speed fiber-optic network.

“It’s not our goal to blanket the city with indoor coverage,” said Justin Holmes, Boston’s interim chief information officer.

However, the Wi-Fi expansion puts Boston on pace with many other municipalities around the country, such as New York and San Francisco, that are building wireless networks as a relatively inexpensive way to extend the reach of the Internet to underserved areas. New York City is building the largest public wireless network for a 95-block area in Harlem to connect some 93,000 residents. San Francisco provides free Wi-Fi to its public housing developments.

Those municipal Wi-Fi networks can’t compete with high-speed Internet connections that many commercial providers, such as Comcast Corp. and RCN Corp., offer — at subscriptions that can top $100 a month, when bundled with other services.

The stiff price for high-speed Internet has prompted tech giant Google Inc. to begin installing an all fiber-optic network, beginning first in Kansas City, Kan., that promises Internet service 100 times faster than average broadband, starting at $70 a month.

The Google Fiber project has prompted many cities to explore new ways of expanding Internet availability, including building faster networks on their own, said Esme Vos, founder of Muniwireless.com, a resource for public wireless networks.

“People are saying, ‘Why can’t we have that here?’ ” said Vos.

It’s not just the convenience of streaming movies or chatting on Facebook, Vos said; Internet access has become indispensable for students to do their homework, and job seekers to find work.

“You can’t even file job applications today if you aren’t online,” Vos said. “It’s part of the literacy that we expect people to have.”

Chattanooga, Tenn., for example, recently built its own fiber networks that will bring ultrafast Web service to residents’ homes.

Such systems, though, are extraordinarily expensive, beyond the means of most cities’ finances; Chattanooga, for example, used stimulus funds from the federal government to help pay for the $330 million fiber network, and even so, will charge residents at least $58 a month.

Former mayor Thomas M. Menino tried but failed to persuade Google to select Boston as one of its fiber communities. Menino also had a long-running dispute with Verizon over the telecom giant’s refusal to offer its high speed fiber-optic FiOS network to Boston residents.

So as elsewhere, a Wi-Fi network was the most convenient and cost-effective option for Boston.

The Grove Hall project was born during Menino’s administration, which was awarded a $20.5 million federal grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2011 that set aside money for redevelopment projects in Dorchester. About $300,000 was used for the Grove Hall build-out.

Barbara Fields, HUD’s New England regional director, said improved Internet access has become a crucial component for bettering the lives of the city’s low-income residents.

“This idea to take a section of the city and provide Internet is an investment that will reap a lot of benefits,” said Fields. “This puts Grove Hall right in the center of things.”

Walsh hopes the network helps boost economic development around Grove Hall, and eventually in the city’s other Main Streets districts, by dangling free Wi-Fi to attract new businesses to these underserved parts of Boston.

“This is important for our economy,” said Walsh. “It spurs economic development.”

Walsh has made improving Internet access a key part of his mayoral agenda and has said he plans on improving service to schools and businesses, as well. He said the Grove Hall project was a first step in that direction, but has not elaborated on other measures.

Because it’s public Wi-Fi, the Grove Hall network has some of the same security risks associated with similar Internet connections available in coffee shops or libraries. In general, security experts warn against using these networks to send personal details such as credit card information. So, users shopping online may want to use a more secure Web connection.

The network will include about 100 wireless units that will be placed in locations around Roxbury and Dorchester. Each unit has a signal of about 300 feet. Even though the network is just starting to be publicized, nearly 10,000 people a day have found their way onto the network since it was turned on with little fanfare in March.

Boston will install signs around the city in the coming weeks to advertise the Wi-Fi network. And this being a public network, Wicked Free Wi-Fi will have limits. Users won’t be able to access pornography, malicious content, gambling websites, or sites that allow people to improperly download copyrighted material such as movies.

Michael B. Farrell can be reached at michael.farrell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeMBFarrell.
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