Smithsonian Reconsiders Web Access Plan on the Mall

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The Smithsonian Institution is reconsidering a nonprofit group's offer to put Internet access points, called "hot spots," on the Mall. The organization's proposal -- which hinges on placing antennas on Smithsonian buildings -- was earlier rejected as not being "in the best interest of the Institution."

But Sheila Burke, the second-ranking official at the Smithsonian, said yesterday she had promised the representatives of the Open Park Project that she would review the proposal and is doing so.

"I didn't give a final word," said Burke. "I am certainly looking at the proposal, which is what I agreed to do."

Hot spots on the Mall would enable anyone with a laptop and wireless fidelity (Wi-Fi) access to the Internet.

Gregory Staple, the president and co-founder of Open Park, said he was looking to have a decision by the time the Smithsonian Folklife Festival opens in June. Staple said the group is assuming all costs, which he estimated at about $2,000.

His group's proposal was first presented to the Smithsonian last year and was reviewed by several offices there. The reasons for the initial rejections included the propriety of allowing a private group to use the museums' roofs.

"The Smithsonian is steward of 10 blocks of space on the Mall. This is an opportunity to do something for the community and expand information choices for the visitors," said Staple. He said rejection of the idea would scuttle an opportunity for the Smithsonian to bring its mission of education and access into the 21st century.

"We want to showcase the latest technology, make it free to the public and provide it on a noncommercial basis," said Staple.

Burke, the Smithsonian's deputy secretary, said technology is a priority at the museums: "Obviously, access to the Smithsonian is one issue that is critical for us. Having people find an easy way to get information is something we care deeply about."

A plan to provide hot spots was not at the top of the Smithsonian's improvement list, said Burke. Getting more information onto its Web site has been a priority for a number of years. The site received 97.6 million visits last year.

Open Park proposed putting six antennas, all about two feet high, on several roofs. Visitors, said Staple, could then use their laptops or PDAs to download information anywhere on the Mall. Among other things, the access would allow visitors to tap into the Smithsonian's Web sites.

Open Park was founded in 2003 and is supported through private contributions, said Staple. Last year it installed a hot spot near the Supreme Court and Library of Congress.

Many museums, including the Brooklyn Museum and the Cleveland Museum of Art, have installed equipment allowing the public to use personal wireless equipment.

In December, the Smithsonian gave the nonprofit tentative approval to move forward. In February, David L. Evans, the undersecretary for science, wrote a letter saying the Smithsonian was turning down the proposal. "We decided that the request was not in the best interest of the institution," he wrote, adding that some of the buildings were due for repair work that would include the rooftops. "In keeping with our standard and in fairness to others previously denied access, our landmark museums would not be appropriate locations for launching Wi-Fi service in the Nation's Capital."

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