Franchising Free: SalemOpen.Net Installs a Meme

Franchising Free: SalemOpen.Net Installs a Meme

SalemOpen.Net will launch shortly using Michael Oh’s model—and support—for establishing commercially supported free Internet access over Wi-Fi: In an interview last week, Michael Oh outlined the new network in Salem, Mass., that will launch in the next few days. The network involves the sponsorship of a local bank and participation by a number of merchants. Oh says that SalemOpen.Net is a proof of concept that the Newbury Street model he developed for putting Wi-Fi access hand in hand with business development can be “franchised.”

“It’s incredible to actually be on a street and drive around for three hours and find 2,200 access points, and see that only 12 of them are public, free or paid,” Oh said. The commercial free networks that Oh has helped build take advantage of the growing necessity of Internet access for people in all walks of life and the built-in nature of Wi-Fi in virtually all new laptops.

SalemOpen.Net’s motivation comes in part from the desire of the 40,000-person town to have a year-round economy not based in the run-up to Halloween, and events that recall witch trials over 300 years ago. Oh said that some residents live there because of the mystique—“24 by 7 Goths”—but the community at large “would like to say we’re more than just a Halloween tourist attraction or a place to go during the summer to see some interesting witch museums.”

Oh said, the network is “a way of trying to attract businesses to Salem Center, to attract more people from the fringes of that area.” He noted, “Literally in that area, there’s nothing like that.” The nearby North Shore Mall has an Apple Store with free Wi-Fi, but he said that’s practically the only open access.

In an email follow-up, Oh noted that a small project in nearby Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to offer free Wi-Fi illustrated his point about the attactiveness of wireless access. “Free WiFi can give an entire area an advantage over the ‘big city’—cheaper parking, lower rent, and free Wi-Fi,” he wrote. “I think that’s an important trend—and you could see free Wi-Fi gelling more effectively in small towns first, even though there are more users for it in cities.”

This was the logic that drove Monet Mobile to offer high-speed cellular wireless data service in more rural areas unserved or underserved by wired DSL and cable broadband. The company filed for bankruptcy in April after being unable to sign up enough customers. But Monet required a separate PC Card-based cellular modem for access where Wi-Fi is something that tens of millions of computer owners already have built in or added on to their computers, like a plug in search of a socket.

Oh estimated at its outset that $10,000 would be required to build out enough service across the three major downtown streets. Eastern Bank has contributed those funds to support the effort. Oh said the final costs would wind up being practically to the dollar on that original estimate. The Salem Partnership, the City of Salem, and the Salem Main Street Initiative have all participated in planning or approving the project.

“In order for free Wi-Fi to succeed on any level, there has to be a model that is easy to duplicate,” Oh wrote. The corporate sponsorship lets the network start “at a higher level—and thus has a higher likelihood of being more sustainable in the end.” A project in Savannah, Georgia, of a similar nature was just announced today.

About 10 initial businesses will pay $25 per month for the year, and potentially $50 per month depending on sponsorship in the second year. Oh said that 40 businesses could potentially become part of the effort given proximity.

The system uses the same setup as NewburyOpen.Net: DSL connections that are approve for sharing and Wi-Fi antennas to relay no more than one hop from the DSL modem’s origin. The DSL is from Speakeasy Networks, which explicitly allows sharing and resale of its connections, and are rated at 6 Mbps downstream, 1 Mbps upstream, and costs about $120 per month.

The project will use three DSL lines, one for each street. “Because of the layout, Salem has a commercial center with three main streets that all intersect with one another,” Oh said, requiring the three lines for simplicity’s sake, and high bandwidth availability. The Peabody Essex Museum will receive some Wi-Fi coverage as part of the arrangement.

Oh can already see how the press will cover it: “I can’t wait for the press picture of some Goth with a laptop in front of the old town hall.” As long as that brings Salem some attention, however, none of the participants will have any problem with it.  [Wi-Fi Networking News]

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