(Photo by Andrew Zaleski)
Pop open the network settings on your smartphone next time you’re in Liberty Lands Park in Northern Liberties and you’ll now see an option to connect to Bamboowifi, a free wireless internet service that came online last Thursday.
This hotspot directly across the street from Jarvus Innovations is the first in a forthcoming mesh network of wireless hotspots that Bamboowifi cofounders David Platt and James Gregory would like to see extend from Girard Avenue into Old City.
However, when this reporter had trouble getting on the network using an iPhone 5, Platt was quick to mention that there are still some kinks to work out.
“This is just our demo,” he told us Tuesday afternoon. “We just wanted to get something up to show that this idea we had will be a reality.”
On Saturday at the N3rd Street one-year anniversary party, Bamboowifi will be officially introduced. By 2016, Platt and Gregory’s hope is to pay a wholesale internet provider to bring in a fiber line along N3rd Street, set up Cisco MR72 access points in a number of indoor and outdoor locations (the Bamboowifi connection available now comes courtesy of a Cisco MR18 access point hooked up inside Jarvus’ offices), and offer wireless internet up and down North 3rd Street.
Here’s what that will look like:
- An hour of free wireless internet at 7 megabits per second will be available to anyone willing to sit through a 20-second advertisement immediately after logging onto Bamboowifi’s network. Think of it like a free Pandora radio station: After every hour of internet, another 20-second ad will play; advertising dollars, Platt says, will be one way Bamboowifi’s mesh network is paid for.
- Those interested in paying roughly $35 a month will be given a WPA-2 password to log on to a private, subscribers-only Bamboowifi network that runs at 30 megabits per second.
- The access points act as both wireless routers and repeaters, meaning they can communicate with each other. Hence why Bamboowifi is best defined as a mesh network.
How much the full buildout ultimately costs is tough to say. Equipment costs will depend on how much a wholesale internet provider would charge to install a fiber line, as well as how many participating businesses along N3rd Street plan to host access points.
Indeed, paying for a mesh network seems to be critical component to determining Bamboowifi’s success.
After Platt and Gregory announced plans to set up a free, wireless internet service in the heart of Comcast country last January, they set out to raise $227,000 on Kickstarter. Originally, Bamboowifi was meant to debut over the summer. But the Kickstarter campaign managed to take in just $1,692 in pledges. To set up this first Bamboowifi hotspot for the N3rd Street party, network engineer Platt put up his own funds.
“Fundamentally, it’s hard to build these things and deliver the kind of reliability people expect if no one’s paying for it,” said Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
But Platt and Gregory are optimistic.
Without any advertising, Platt said roughly 90 people per day had been logging on Bamboowifi for anywhere between 5 and 20 minutes since the Jarvus demo access point was set up last week. They plan to make another attempt at crowdfunding using Indiegogo while they seek to secure some grant funding. And while several investors have approached them already interested in backing the project, Platt said he and Gregory right now are trying to keep make this “more organic” of an effort.
“The demo access point gives us real data, which is way higher than what we thought,” Platt said. “From the moment we put it in, there has been at least one person on Bamboowifi.”