Deepak Jain, founder of AiNET (left), speaks with attendees at a public discussion at the old Hutzler’s Palace building on N. Howard Street.

Baltimore will soon have free Wi-Fi throughout the city, and it will start on the west side of downtown under a plan being formulated by a Maryland businessman.

Deepak Jain, founder and president of AiNET, a Maryland company that operates data centers and cloud environments, disclosed at a public meeting last night that he is working with city officials and others to bring free Wi-Fi to Baltimore.

“We are about to announce a free Wi-Fi project for the city of Baltimore,” he told an audience gathered at the Hutzler’s Palace building on Howard Street. “It’s going to start here and work out….You should have a seamless experience walking from your front door to Starbucks and back. You shouldn’t have to think about it.”

Jain said he plans to start with the area around the 200 block of N. Howard Street, where his company owns property, and expand in “concentric circles” until the entire city has free, uninterrupted Wi-Fi.

He intends to spend his own money to put the network in place, and said he expects the first sections to be operational “in a couple of months, not years.”

Jain said he has been talking with City Council members and others in city government about his plan and has asked the city for its support. He said his plan is not contingent on obtaining city funds, although he is looking for “other organizations to collaborate with us.” Primarily, he said, “we’ve asked the city not to make it more difficult for us.”

Wi-Fi allows computers, smartphones or other devices to connect to the internet or communicate with one another wirelessly within a given area. In Baltimore, many people can access Wi-Fi at work or in stores or by purchasing Wi-Fi at home from a provider, but it’s not available everywhere for free.

Some jurisdictions around the world, including the Indian state of Kerala, have declared the internet to be a “basic human right.” The United Nations has taken the position that all people must have access to the internet to exercise their right to freedom of expression and opinion.

Jain said he has been working on his Wi-Fi project for the past year and has been meeting with people in the city who can help make it happen.

“It’s our initiative,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of communication with folks. It’s time for us to put up or shut up. We’re going to keep putting up…We think digital access is key to the future of cities.”

Jain said he could not provide a figure for the cost of providing free Wi-Fi throughout the city.

“We’re paying” for it, he said after the formal presentation. “I’m writing the checks…We’re starting around this building…How fast it grows is going to be a function of factors outside our control. But we’re going to start.”

Jain said he plans to post information about his project online within the next week on a company website. He said the page would also give people a way to sign up to receive more information about the effort as it moves forward.

One issue to be solved, he said, is how to put in the necessary infrastructure to provide free Wi-Fi on city streets without adding visual clutter to the built environment.

“We’re going to explore the challenge of [figuring out] how to put technology boxes on city streets without changing the character of the city streets,” he said. “Technology boxes are…big. I don’t want to be blamed 20 years from now for essentially littering the city.”

Raising expectations and leaving people out of the discussion are additional concerns, he said.

One of the risks is “promising too much and under-delivering…making it too flashy,” he said. But “our biggest fear is being tone deaf. Folks who haven’t been invited to the conversation, we don’t know what they’re thinking.”

If bringing free Wi-Fi to Baltimore is a success, Jain said, he may expand to other cities. “We may not stop here.”

Jain’s company, AiNET, owns two buildings in the 200 block of N. Howard Street, the former Hutzler Brothers Palace Building at 210-218 North Howard, and a 1980s office building known as One Market Center, at the northwest corner of Howard and Lexington streets.

One Market Center is filled with equipment that AiNET uses in its work with the internet. The attached 1888 Hutzler’s building is largely vacant. AiNET bought the complex several years ago for about $20 million and is exploring ways to renovate the Palace building for new uses that will bring life to it and the surrounding area, including big data research labs, a technology incubator and Tokyo-style micro apartments.

AiNET has allowed a roving art museum, The Contemporary, to use the first floor of the Palace building to mount “The Ground,” an exhibit of work by artist Michael Jones McKean, until May 19.

The meeting where Jain spoke was part of a series of public discussions being held in conjunction with The Contemporary’s exhibit. The topic was “Future Cities – Baltimore.” The idea was to discuss ideas that could help rejuvenate cities such as Baltimore and structures such as the Palace building.

More than 100 people came to listen to the speakers, who included the dean of the University of Maryland School of Social Work, the general manager of the Open Works maker space, the heads of the Baltimore Museum of Industry and The Contemporary, the head of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, the author of a book about the historic Hutzler’s building and Jain.

Speakers from the panel discussion at “Future Cities – Baltimore.”

During the 90-minute discussion, more than one speaker said one of the biggest needs today for cities such as Baltimore is to close the “digital divide” — the gap between people who have access to the internet and those who don’t. They said the internet can be a key to employment, education, health care and many other areas, and people who don’t have access to the internet are at a disadvantage.

Speakers also talked about the problems people have with limited or intermittent internet access in cities, including areas where the internet is not available.

“The digital divide has become a civil rights issue,” said Richard Barth, dean of the University of Maryland School of Social Work. “Whether you are trying to pay your bills or settle [traffic] tickets or help your kids with their homework, you need connectiveness…If you can’t pursue knowledge at the time that you need it, that’s a great detriment of the digital divide.”

That led Jain to make his announcement about providing free Wi-Fi. He said he feels strongly that it can be a way to help cities such as Baltimore move forward.

Jain said one example of the digital divide is disadvantaged school children who may possess electronic notepads or other portable computers because someone gave a grant to make them available, but often don’t have access to the internet to make their computers fully functional.

He said students can go to public libraries for free access, but once the libraries close, they are shut out. With free, citywide access, he said, that would no longer be an issue.

Kirby Fowler, head of the Downtown Partnership, noted that Baltimore’s civic leaders have made efforts in the past to provide free Wi-Fi in certain sections of the city, including Center Plaza and around Pratt and Light streets, but the programs have always relied on funding. He said the citywide network that Jain is proposing would be extremely valuable to the city.

“We think it’s very important for people to get free access to the Internet whenever they can,” he said.

Fowler praised AiNET for offering fresh thinking about the area, saying, “we haven’t had progressive thoughts about Howard Street in a very long time.” He also said the Howard Street corridor is faring better because of investments from companies such as AiNET. “I’m glad to see that we’ve turned the corner on Howard Street… after decades of disinvestment,” Fowler said.

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Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.