Free, publicly available outdoor Wi-Fi access debuted here Wednesday morning with the launch of a wireless hotspot in front of the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress and the Capitol Visitors' Center.
Sponsored by the non-profit Open Park Project, the Capitol Hill hotspot is the initial step in the organization's plan to provide free public wireless Internet service across the entire two-mile long National Mall.
Open Park co-founder Greg Staple told a small crowd engulfed by the usual noisy protests in front of the Supreme Court, the hotspot "will give the public outside the Capitol the same quick Internet access for research, e-mail and news that their representatives enjoy inside their offices."
With equipment donated by Tropos Networks of San Mateo, Calif., and backhaul support by DC Access, a Capitol Hill wireless Internet service provider, Staple said the group hopes to establish a mesh of free hotspots on the Mall this summer. The ultimate goal is create a public Wi-Fi zone by next year from the Washington Monument to Capitol Hill that will also serve as a national test bed for new wireless applications.
"I like to think of Wi-Fi as a technology for turning your laptop or personal digital assistant into a cordless phone for the Internet," said Staple, a Washington telecommunications lawyer. "All you need is a Wi-Fi radio base station, or access point and that's what Open Park is going to provide."
Staple said Open Park decided to start on the east end of the Mall because the space "has long been central to American democracy. It is the home of the U.S. Congress and site of the Supreme Court and it's one of the most popular sites that is visited day and day out."
The Supreme Court neighborhood also has more private buildings with a line of sight for Wi-Fi base stations than the west end of the Mall, which is lined with the massive national museums and flanked by federal buildings.
As Amnesty International staged an elaborate protest a few yards away over the Bush administration's indefinite detainment of U.S. citizens suspected of terrorist activities, Staple added, "With the basic habeas corpus rights of American citizens being argued in the Supreme Court right behind us, it's hard to think of a better site to start the first hotspot for democracy."
Kevin Werbach, a technology analyst and an another co-founder of Open Park, said in a statement, "Washington policymakers deserve a first hand look at how quickly innovation can develop in unlicensed spectrum bands such as those used by Wi-Fi. From Wi-Fi phones to radio location tags to portable guides for park rangers, the possibilities are extraordinary."
U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who was debating the Internet access tax ban in the Senate chamber across the street from the Supreme Court plaza, said in a statement, "The high visibility of the National Mall makes it an excellent place to showcase the exciting potential of new wireless technology."
Wyden added, "Just as important is the symbolism of making advanced communications connectivity available on a public basis on the public land around the core institutions and memorials of our democracy."
Staple said the project will eventually involve about six mesh networks that will allow roving up and down the Mall.
In addition to Tropos and DC Access, other groups involved in the Mall Wi-Fi project include DeepCoolClear and Airimba Wireless, which will provide back-end network management and authentication services.
"We welcome the support of other high tech companies and individuals in implementing this vision," said Leo Cloutier, a telecommunications consultant who serves as the project's chief technical adviser and network architect. "We believe that Washington deserves a state-of-the-art Wi-Fi net on the Mall. Open Park is focused on marshaling the resources necessary to provide this 21st Century community service."