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Wireless Goes Indoors

by Laura Forlano, Dec 23, 2003
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Just as New Yorkers are getting used to the idea that we can check e-mail and surf the Internet for free from Bryant Park, winter storms chased city residents and their laptops indoors until Spring. But, thanks to a number of new wireless technology projects, more and more New Yorkers have wireless access to the Internet for free indoors.

The largest of these projects is run by the New York Public Library. Now, more than 50 branches are offering free wireless Internet access to anyone with a laptop or other wireless device (such as a personal digital assistant). But, the library warns, the network is not secure and staff cannot provide technical assistance.

Community Access, an affordable housing non-profit agency that caters to people with psychiatric disabilities, is trying out another, albeit much smaller project. This month, 45 residents of a Community Access building on Avenue D got a new wireless network.

City Councilmember Margarita Lopez, who represents the East Village, has been a strong advocate for mentally ill New Yorkers. She says of the project, "I have worked with Community Access for over 25 years, and I applaud them for their efforts to give people with low-income access to technology and the advantages that it provides."

The network, which started as an experiment, cost three thousand dollars for equipment and, after months of planning, took only four hours to install with the help of about a dozen NYCwireless volunteers who spent their afternoon in the Avenue D building.

In preparation for the project, Dustin Goodwin and Olivia Given of NYCwireless recruited a team of volunteers who were trained in a three and a half hour session which they paid fifty dollars each to attend. The rationale for charging volunteers for the training session was to find committed, responsible volunteers who can take on additional projects in the future. This group formed the core team that will provide technical support for the Community Access project.

Now, the goal is to provide more computers to the building's residents in the coming months so that they can take advantage of the network. While residents already had one shared computer prior to the installation of the wireless network, there were problems with frequent breakdowns and a lack of technical support. Community Access hopes to get computers for a quarter of the residents through donations over the next six months.

"Technology is the easy part," said Joshua Auerbach, a member of the Community Access Board of Directors and a Vice President at AOL Time Warner. "The human side is much more difficult."

Steve Coe, executive director of Community Access, believes that the project might help residents communicate and build a sense of community as well as gain access to vital job and metal health information online. Until recently, many residents were prevented from working due to financial penalties on their Medicaid benefits. But, now that they can work, they need ways to access job listings, many of which are exclusively posted online.

If this project is successful, it is likely that wireless networks will be installed at other Community Access buildings in the Lower East Side, East Village, Washington Heights and Brooklyn.

Another organization with its eye on providing wireless Internet access is the Lower Eastside Girls Club. "The Girls Club sits right on the edge of the digital divide, between the prosperous areas of the East Village and the housing projects," said David Pentecost, a technology consultant who works with the organization.

The Girls Club is planning to build a new building on Avenue D that will share wireless Internet access with the surrounding community. This project could take years to complete but the hope is that by the time the building is finished, new technologies called mesh networking will make it even easier to share Internet access.

These new wireless projects are a sign of slow but significant change in the non-profit community. Currently, there is more awareness that engineers, architects and technology professionals need to work together to develop affordable housing with advanced technology.Laura Forlano is a doctoral student studying communication technology policy at Columbia University.

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