As many as 3,000 people who live on or around North Mississippi Avenue-as well as the flock of shops and restaurants crowding the North Portland strip-will get free wireless Internet this spring.
The nonprofit Personal Telco Project will use a $14,500 grant from the Meyer Memorial Trust starting next month to install wi-fi ("wireless fidelity," the ubiquitous radio technology beloved by laptop users) along the street.
In addition to the grant it landed last week, PTP scored a key equipment donation from Intel, as well as Internet service from local company Stephouse.com. By relaying a signal between rooftops, PTP aims to soak the Mississippi corridor between Fremont and Killingsworth Streets in seamless, ambient broadband.
Founded in 2000 by a bunch of tech-industry refugees, the all-volunteer PTP has "unwired" more than 100 locations-coffeeshops, bars, restaurants, even parks. Its larger goal, though, goes beyond helping latte-sippers to check email: It wants to help bridge the digital divide between rich and poor.
"Our idea was to find an underserved area with an up-and-coming feel and bathe it in wi-fi loveliness," says Nigel Ballard, Personal Telco's spokesman. Ballard says the neighborhood's mix of artists, young homeowners and low-income residents makes it the perfect place for Personal Telco to extend its quest to swaddle Portland in free Internet (see "Free For All," WW, June 9, 2004).
"If you go a block away from the retail strip in either direction, you find low-income housing," Ballard says. "What I'd like to see is lots of people who aren't online at all right now get online."
By late fall, the group plans to add up to 15 voice-over-Internet phones (VOIPs), which can call any other VOIP without long-distance charges, at avenue businesses.
"You can call Australia, and Qwest doesn't get a dime," Ballard says. "Not that that's our motivation."
Qwest spokesman Michael Dunne declined to comment on the specifics of PTP's Mississippi project, but he noted that the company offers its own VOIP for businesses. Qwest will launch a consumer service this year.
Last spring, Personal Telco installed a high-powered wi-fi transmitter atop a Southeast Portland youth hostel, beaming signals deep into the surrounding neighborhood. Soon after, a Mississippi Avenue landlord offered access to a rooftop kitty-corner from the Fresh Pot, the coffee shop that helped catalyze development on a street once noted for its drug dealers and vacant storefronts.
"We thought, 'Hmm, we're a nonprofit with $600 in the bank and a big pro bono account with our lawyer,'" Ballard says. "'Maybe we should apply for a grant!'"
A year ago, Personal Telco installed perhaps the first free public VOIP anywhere at the Urban Grind Cafe at the corner of Northeast 22nd Avenue and Oregon Street.