In a partnership with a local internet service provider, the College is planning an extensive wireless network that will provide access to both students and town residents throughout the Brunswick downtown area, Fort Andross, and even parts of Topsham. The network is a pilot project scheduled to last six months.
With a local company, Great Works Internet (GWI), providing the bandwidth, the College will only need to coordinate the construction of the network, which will use mesh technology, a new type of wireless internet access.
The idea for the pilot came out of a desire to provide wireless access for Bowdoin students and faculty working at Fort Andross, according to Chief Information Officer Mitch Davis.
"For me, it was functionality. Students working at Fort Andross should have the same level of connection that they have here, and if I could provide that I would," Davis said.
"It grew into something bigger, but it's actually fairly small considering we have 195 [access points] at Bowdoin. Adding five or six more of these is not going to kill us. It's actually not even that big of a project," Davis said.
According to John Keimel, a network engineer at Bowdoin, mesh technology "uses multiple access points to create redundant links," resulting in a more stable and resilient network. Using small antennas that can focus very precisely, Bowdoin's network will transmit a signal from Coles Tower to Fort Andross that will then be directed toward the downtown area. Another signal will come from Bowdoin's McLellan building on Union Street, behind Hannaford. These signals will then be distributed using five additional access points branching out from those two locations.
Town officials from both Brunswick and Topsham spoke enthusiastically about the project. Wireless is "an important piece of technology that we can give to both our businesses and community," Brunswick Director of Economic Development Mathew Eddy said.
"We have been looking at ways that might be able to make our downtown more redundant in terms of internet access. We thought it was going to be a difficult process, but it turned out that it wasn't because Bowdoin is so far ahead in terms of technology, and they were interested," he said.
Suzanne Watson '89, economic and community development director for the town of Topsham, said that she envisioned the plan as a bridge between the two towns. Though originally the project was only to include Fort Andross and the Brunswick downtown, it is being expanded to offer service at the Bowdoin Mill in Topsham.
"It's kind of a community connectivity as well as a wireless connectivity," Watson said. "So we see more people crossing the bridge from town to town. We'd love to see more Bowdoin students doing that."
The College appears to have avoided what might have been the one hurdle for the project by cooperating with GWI, which is donating the wireless service for the pilot. In Philadelphia, internet service providers such as Verizon tried to defeat a similar plan because of worries that it would hurt their business.
"It is understandable, but not to be condoned, that major wireless providers like Verizon Wireless, Cingular, or Sprint do not welcome the loss of a potential customer base" and therefore advocate for "no disruption of competition," Public Advocate for the State of Maine Steven Ward said.
According to CEO of GWI Fletcher Kittredge, "We're hoping to come up with a template for towns that don't have broadband now to put this into place."
"Maine has a real problem. Broadband is really important to the economic development of any community. There are all sorts of people who for economic reasons or other couldn't afford our service. If they had access to broadband it would help Maine as a whole. We might lose something [in terms of individual customers paying for internet connectivity], but the benefits far outweigh the costs," he said.
Although internet access will be open to all, only Bowdoin students will have access to the Bowdoin network.
Bowdoin students had mixed feelings about the project. According to Maresa Nielson '09, "It would be really convenient to be able to be anywhere and use the internet for anything."
Leah Ricci '07 felt otherwise. "I have a laptop, but I use it in my room or the library or on the Quad. I'd never take it downtown with me," she said.
"I think the only way it would help people is if they had something small like a PDA they could take with them. I want to know how much money they're spending to do this," she added.
The only obstacle remaining for the project, which Bowdoin will be setting up, is approval from the Town Council. According to Keimel, Davis and Kittredge are awaiting an invitation from the council "to speak with them about it in more detail" before proceeding with the project.