New York City's Department of Information Technology
and Telecommunications (DoITT) announced a deal that
could improve cell phone coverage and bring in over
$20 million a year in municipal revnue. The agreement gives
six wireless companies, including telecommunications
providers T-Mobile and Nextel, the rights to install
cell phone antennas and Internet transmitters on
18,000 of the city's 300,000 lampposts. The plan is
scheduled to be put into effect by January.
Most New Yorkers would probably agree that mobile
phone coverage in the city is in need of serious
improvement. To be sure, the city's plan could minimize
problems with mobile phone reception, particularly in
midtown where the number of service complaints was
reported to be highest in a citywide
However, to date, there has been little public
discussion of how this agreement might impact New
Yorkers economically, technologically and
politically, and only a few concerns expressed over potential
negative health effects. "We have no idea what
dangers are posed by the concentration of these
devices," Councilmember Peter F. Vallone Jr. of
Queens told the New York Times.
Will this deal be in the public interest?
The city says that the deployment of wireless antennas on lampposts will
reduce the need for additional large, high-power
cellular base stations on rooftops.
Instead, the plan uses low-power universal antennas
that can be used by all cell phone providers. As a
result, fewer antennas are required overall to improve
mobile phone coverage.
"There's no better way to
figure out what is fair or unfair about a plan until
you go ahead and launch it," commented Douglas Rushkoff, a tech author
who teaches at
New York University's Interactive Telecommunications
However, the current plan allows for
contracts up to 15 years, which doesn't seem to make sense given the rapid pace of technological change. Shorter contract terms may be necessary in
order to insure that the city is not stuck with out-of-date technology, thus losing its competitiveness.
One of the six companies planning to sign contracts
with the city, IDT Business Services, is planning to
provide low-income communities with cheap Internet and
telephone services and equipment. But, this service
will only be offered in neighborhoods where more than
five percent of residents do not have telephone
service. Three other companies (ClearLinx Network,
Crown Castle Solutions, Dianet Communications) plan to
lease the lampposts to other carriers.
While some give the city credit for attempting to get private companies to
offer service to underserved parts of the city, others say the effort is not
ambitious enough. NYCwireless board member Dana Spiegel wonders whether the
to the city will be adequate and whether it will be used appropriately: "For example, some of the rental fees could be
for earmarked public use such as providing low cost
Internet access for the city, especially in
Spiegel also voiced concerns over which city agency
would have jurisdiction in the event of technical
interference or unfair competition with other wireless
providers. While the Department of Transportation has
official jurisdiction over lampposts, service
providers are normally responsible for inspecting and
guaranteeing the safety of their equipment. As the
accidents involving electrified wires protruding from lampposts
earlier this year have shown, it is important to
clarify any jurisdictional issues and private sector
responsibilities with respect to the installation of
antennas on public property.
With respect to technical interference, another NYCwireless board member
Dustin Goodwin commented that, "By renting out
lampposts, the city has put a commercial carrier right
outside everyone's window. So, in essence, your
unlicensed spectrum is no longer yours or your
neighbor's but whomever can rent space on the side
walk." This is because, under this deal, a private
service provider could, theoretically, use all of the
unlicensed spectrum inside a commercial or residential
property, thereby slowing or shutting down a home or
business wireless network.
Currently, the city's Department of Design and
Construction, along with the Department of Transportation, is holding a
competition to redesign its lampposts. One wonders how the
current wireless lamppost plan will be coordinated
with this redesign effort. The wireless antennas, the
designs of which have been reviewed by the New York
City art commission, are low-profile according to
DoITT Commissioner Gino Menchini. In fact, they may be virtually
unnoticeable from the street.
Following New York's announcement of the deal, other
cities (including Philadelphia, Boston, Madison, Wisconsin and Culver City,
proclamations that they would turn their downtown
areas into free Internet hotspots using wireless
Philadelphia officials claim that they can turn their
city into the world's
largest wireless Internet hot spot for $10 million by placing hundreds of transmitters on
lampposts. The service would either be free, or much
cheaper than commercial providers.
New York City's technological competitiveness is of
interest to all New Yorkers, and there should be more public discussion of this latest plan before antennas crop up on thousands
of lampposts citywide.
Laura Forlano is a doctoral student studying communication technology policy at Columbia University.Â
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