The Boston Globe Stakes Out a Role in WiFi

The Boston Globe is building out a series of local WiFi “Pulse Points” that provide hyper-local information about the signal area (train stations, book stores, etc.). The paper, which is owned by The New York Times Co., launched two Pulse Points at the end of September, and expects to add some other Pulse Points by the end of the year.

While the Pulse Points only include content today, it doesn’t strain the imagination to see that advertising and transactions could be added in the future. Such a scenario is especially interesting in light of the breezy assumption that Google’s current bid to WiFi all of San Francisco is a slam dunk to sell advertising at the expense of local newspapers, Yellow Pages or TV stations –or all three.

The Globe’s effort started as a skunk works by one of its techies, DC Dennison, and a Boston WiFi enthusiast., Michael Oh. After early tests proved to be promising, the paper chose to brand the Boston Globe Pulse Points, in line with the paper’s promotion of itself as “the pulse of Boston.” No access to the Pulse Points, however, is evident from the paper’s various websites.

Initial content includes area history, and information about local businesses, landmarks and people. For instance, the Pulse Point for South Station is said to include topical news about the high speed Acela trains and probably, their breakdown record. Users can also add content in discussion forums, as well as play games, but the community journalism part of this is probably a lower priority.

Historically speaking, the Pulse Point program is reminiscent of the kiosk programs of the late 1980s. A number of newspapers (and others) tried to build such information centers on the back of local information and ticket sales, only to fall victim to unintuitive interfaces and hard-to-maintain equipment. Clearly, in the interim, the equipment issues have gone away, and we’ve learned something about interactive content.

Going forward, the question is whether The Globe and other papers can carve out a role for themselves if the likes of Google assume the hosting responsibilities for WiFi – and presumably, the default browser. We know this: to date, no newspaper has really developed a compelling wireless service worth paying for. Why would they be able to create a more compelling wireless service?

That said, it seems kind of silly to think that Google or any other wireless provider is poised to suck the ad dollars out of a market solely on the basis of a WiFi network. When we’re talking about newspapers, we’re talking about mass media. Really, just how many people are going to be getting their wireless access from the famous bookstore at South Station? Ultimately, this thing only becomes significant when it is set up as the primary means of Web access. It could happen.