Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Expanding Wi-Fi Beyond Manhattan

Municipal wireless may be struggling in other cities, but New York City's Wi-Fi cloud is growing steadily. In addition to the fee-based access points in Starbucks, McDonald's and other venues, various civic groups continue to deploy wireless hotspots in parks, apartment buildings and lower-income neighborhoods. Late last year, CBS announced it would start offering an advertising-supported wireless Internet service in a tourist-heavy swath of Midtown. But there are many steps the city could take to promote these efforts, especially as it works to promote Internet access across the five boroughs.

Manhattan's Wi-Fi activity was on full display at a recent hearing of the New York City Broadband Advisory Committee, held at the Manhattan School of Music. The Downtown Alliance, NYCwireless, the New York Public Library and Harlem Wireless all spoke about their successes using wireless to promote economic development and increase quality of life.

The previous meetings of the committee, held in the Bronx and Brooklyn, featured little discussion of Wi-Fi beyond its availability at the Brooklyn Public Library, which now has Wi-Fi access in all of its facilities. Most of New York's Wi-Fi projects are in Manhattan, so it's no surprise that the recent meeting, held in that borough, featured a more extensive discussion of Wi-Fi and what steps could be taken to spread this important Internet access tactic to the other boroughs.

Strategies to Expand Wireless

Dana Spiegel of NYCwireless presented a number of recommendations on how to do this, including developing a fund to give grants of $10,000 or so to associations that want to offer free wireless but don't have the capital to launch the project. Once up, maintenance costs for Wi-Fi are fairly low, Spiegel said.

His organization has set up hotspots in a number of public parks. Since NYCwireless relies on host organizations to pay the startup and maintenance costs, the hotspots are concentrated in parks with well-funded support groups, such as Bryant Park. Similarly, business improvement districts that lack the resources of the Downtown Alliance cannot follow that group's lead in setting up public hotspots in lower Manhattan.

Spiegel also suggested streamlining the Parks Department process for approving such projects. And, since Wi-Fi access points still need to connect to the Internet, Spiegel recommends building new, publicly accessible infrastructure to reduce bandwidth costs.

Michael Lewis spoke about his Wireless Harlem Initiative, which is currently testing hardware to use in delivering Wi-Fi access throughout the neighborhood. He is frustrated by the city's Mobile Telecom Franchise process, which governs access to light poles and other city assets where he could mount wireless routers.

Vincent Grippo, chief of staff for the city's Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications pointed out that the department does have designated zones with lower fees, including most of Harlem, precisely to promote construction in those areas. The initial fee is $10,000 in the selected areas compared to $50,000 in most of the city and $100,000 in Manhattan below 96th Street. But Lewis contends that the fees were set up for cell phone providers or other big commercial efforts and represent a significant barrier for neighborhood initiatives like his.

Your Neighbor's Internet

The most common form of wireless Internet sharing is from neighbor to neighbor, where an in-home signal spills over through walls and windows, but this has several drawbacks. First, in most cases, it violates the Internet Service Provider's terms of use. (Some boutique providers like Speakeasy or are more open-minded about their sharing policies.) Second, it usually involves using an unencrypted connection, which means private Internet traffic can be picked up by anyone in the area. And, third, it relies on neighbors who have a broadband connection and a wireless router.

Even though the city cannot condone breaches of providers' terms of use, it could seek to encourage neighbor-to-neighbor sharing. Rich MacKinnon, who built up Austin Wireless to a community of nearly 100,000 users by working with businesses and government agencies that could legally share their networks, suggests seizing the moral high ground. "In order for a city to ethically encourage neighbor-to-neighbor sharing, it needs to identify neighborhoods that are demonstrably under-served and identify broadband-enabled neighbors within that area or in neighboring areas," he said.

The city could work with broadband providers like Time Warner, Cablevision, and Verizon to establish "open zones" in the parts of the city with critically low broadband access where neighbor-to-neighbor sharing would be condoned. Unfortunately, City Hall is in the middle of video franchise negotiations with those providers, which means they are prohibited from discussing broadband with them because of the different way the federal government regulates the two services, according to Grippo.

But that shouldn't prevent non-governmental efforts to promote neighbor-to-neighbor sharing and educate people on how to operate an in-home hotspot securely and legally.

A Wireless Network

Beyond individuals' desire to access the World Wide Web, the city has a vested interest in getting people online, since it will advance Mayor Michael Bloomberg's plans to move many city services, including 311, online. This is why Andrew Rasiej, a member of the Broadband Advisory Committee who ran for public advocate in 2005, finds it disappointing that the half-billion-dollar NYC Wireless Network (NYCWiN) the city is constructing will not be open to the public, even though could well be among the most robust such networks ever constructed.

The original specifications for the network called for it to support multiple, simultaneous transmission of full-motion video or large files from and to anywhere in the city, real-time tracking of all city vehicles and control of traffic lights, continuous monitoring of air and water purity, transmission of patient vital signs from ambulances to receiving hospitals, and reliable voice communications to back up radio and cell phone signals. The network is operational in Manhattan below Canal Street. The information technology department expects the contractor, Northrop Grumman, to have the entire city covered by spring. The initial purpose is to serve the police and fire departments, but many other government agencies will eventually have access.

NYCWiN is not technically Wi-Fi, since it will use licensed spectrum. Wi-Fi operates over a portion of the airwaves that the Federal Communications Commission has designated as unlicensed, or open to the public for use with any approved device. Nevertheless, in non-emergency conditions, NYCWiN will have a lot of unused capacity that could help civic projects keep their bandwidth costs down, as Dana Spiegel suggested.

Rasiej also thinks the public could use citywide wireless access to contribute to government functions, perhaps by spotting potholes or suspicious activity. "There's still a firewall where elected officials understand that government is there to serve the people, but they don't think people can serve themselves," he said.

Rasiej is confident a wireless network can be made secure for shared use by both the police department and the public. Nicholas Sbordone, director of external affairs for the department of information technology, disagrees. "It needs to work the first time every time," he said because the network is for emergency situations where every second counts.

The city will release the results from the Broadband Advisory Committee hearings and extensive research conducted by Diamond Consultants. The release will include a plan for getting everyone in New York City full access to the Internet. As Diamond's team leaders have said Wi-Fi is by no means a silver bullet, but it can play an important role in a city's broadband strategy.

Joshua Breitbart is policy director for People's Production House.


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