Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Wireless Access

Earlier this month the New York Times criticized the slow growth of wireless Internet access in New York City, which was the centerpiece of Andrew Rasiej's bid for the office of public advocate last year. The Times noted that free or low-cost wireless access is particularly needed in poorer neighborhoods, where the cost of DSL or high-speed service is prohibitive.

New York City's current patchwork approach to wireless access is markedly different from that of other cities and many rural communities. The national trend is toward developing free or low-cost wireless networks that are accessible anywhere within a given region. New York City has focused on wireless access in parks.

Thus far the Department of Parks and Recreation has been trying to provide wireless access in selected parks through partnerships with various non-profit and commercial groups. In addition, several organizations have worked independently to "light up" selected parks. For example, the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation provides wireless access in Bryant Park, and the Alliance for Downtown New York provides the same service in eight public spaces, including three parks, in lower Manhattan. Both groups worked with NYC Wireless, a non-profit organization that advocates universal wireless access in New York City.

Parks Department Strategy

The parks department first solicited bids for vendors to provide wireless access in 2003. Despite skepticism from some City Council members and NYC Wireless, the department perceived wireless access as a means of generating new revenue. The bid sought out companies willing to pay a significant license fee to outfit some of the city's largest parks, in exchange for selling subscriptions and/or pay-as-you-go wireless access. Few vendors were interested, and over a year later the contract was finally awarded to Wi-Fi Salon, a small firm in Manhattan. Although Wi-Fi Salon has successfully launched wireless service in part of Battery Park, it is almost one year behind schedule for launching wireless service in nine other parks throughout the city. The parks department has given Wi-Fi Salon a deadline of the end of this summer for completing this contract, and may approach other vendors if this is not met.

Because the original bid did not generate as much interest or revenue as anticipated, the parks department issued a second bid for wireless vendors earlier this year. The new bid has lower licensing fees, allows vendors to bid on one park at a time rather than multiple parks only, and assumes that wireless access will be free to all individuals. In addition, there are shorter deadlines for completing projects once a contract is awarded. There are early signs of success for this approach; NYC Wireless is involved in providing wireless service in Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, and a Long Island company will work on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade and in Brooklyn's Columbus Park.

NYC Wireless Perspective

Even though NYC Wireless successfully competed for the recent parks department bid, Executive Director Dana Spiegel expresses concerns about it. He believes that wireless service should be treated as an amenity that is as important as a park bench. Spiegel also worries that, because of the costs associated with responding to the parks department bid, many qualified groups have ignored it.

Spiegel feels that the city should pay for park access if no other funds are available. With that said, in many instances parks conservancies or "Friends of" groups could pay for installation and maintenance of wireless service. However wireless access is funded, Spiegel argues that it is a modest financial proposition, which pays for itself in the creation of more vibrant parks.

Most NYC Wireless projects have not included the parks department. Union Square, Tompkins Square and Stuyvesant Cove Parks all offer wireless service established by NYC Wireless and interested local groups. A similar installation at Brooklyn Bridge Park is currently in development.

Narrowing the Digital Divide

One of the most important goals of universal wireless access is to narrow the digital divide. The South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation and Urban Communications Transport Corporation recently launched the first freely available wireless network in the South Bronx. Urban Communications Transport is a minority-owned business that was initially founded to provide wired Internet access in disadvantaged communities, and has now moved into the wireless realm. If the South Bronx network proves successful, it could serve as a model for similar networks in other neighborhoods throughout the city.


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