Joining WiFi Nation - Free Week


By Timothy Dillon

The ‘Internet Minute’ has replaced the “New York Minute” as the most efficient amount of time on the planet. In a world where information travels at the speed of life, people are demanding more wireless access to the internet. Cell providers offer a variety of 3G and 4G packages, but with limitations such as weak signal strength, slower download speeds, data limits and monthly plans, many look to public WiFi networks to give them their fix of ‘digital dope’.

In response to demand, cities across America have been providing free WiFi access to their citizens through a variety of programs. This past July, New York City introduced its new pilot program for free public WiFi and is pioneering the effort on the back of the city’s payphone infrastructure. That’s right. Pay phones.

Photo by Santos Gonzalez.

If you were to do a Google search for cities with the best WiFi, you would not find New York City in the Top 5. Worse, it doesn’t even make the Top 10. Instead cities like Denver, Houston, and Raleigh, to name a few, are the leaders in providing free WiFi to the public.

Last year, Honolulu became one of the leading free WiFi cities by coordinating with local businesses. Kokua Wireless designed the city’s free WiFi system so that it forces the user to reconnect to it every 30 minutes, and with each reconnection, the user is redirected to a homepage or ad of a local business near by. Often it is a business that is actually hosting the router and through free advertising these businesses are motivated to absorb the cost of maintaining the WiFi hotspot. In New York’s pilot program, advertising is also the key.

“We have 12,000 phones. One of the reasons that we have so many phones, not just because we talk so much, but it has to do with the fact that in the city back in the ’90s, we decided to allow the payphone operators to put advertising on the outsides of their booths,” Assistant Commissioner of Franchise Administration and Planning, Stanley Shor tells BTR. “That advertising creates lots and lots of revenue. That could subsidize any service that you want to provide there that is not a very high cost service.”

The first ten payphones were activated in July and already the program has been met with positive feedback and even interest from other major cities.

“We have heard from a number of municipalities, when we first made the announcement, far and wide, I think as even as far as Alaska, who were interested in some of the particulars of what we were doing, and whether or not the model can be replicated,” says Shor.

Brett Sikoff, Director of Mobile Telecom Franchises and Special Projects, confirmed that various local governments of Alaska had in fact reached out hoping to get more information about prospective free WiFi programs for their communities. Beyond the great white north, and much closer to the Big Apple, are Boston and Milwaukee, cities that have also considered using their payphone infrastructure in the same manner. “Milwaukee, while they certainly don’t have the quantity of payphones, were definitely interested in providing on-street WiFi amenities to their citizens and seeing if they could replicate what we’re doing,” Sikoff tells BTR.

New York City is unique in having the greatest number of payphone kiosks in the country, and that infrastructure allows for further development down the road. While not all 12,000 kiosks are suitable for WiFi, widespread coverage of the city represents the inevitable goal for the program.

As New York City presses on with plans to expand WiFi access, some cities have actually moved in the opposite direction. Seattle, once known for being one of the best cities for free WiFi, as of this past April, has discontinued a majority its free public WiFi. The decision was made citing issues such as the cost of maintaining the WiFi infrastructure as well as the rising popularity of 3G and 4G services. A few of Seattle’s public buildings, such as the libraries and city hall, will still provide free WiFi, but the rest is history. Cost and competition may have been what set Seattle back, but New York is not expecting any such issues.

“We think that working through the franchise scenario makes a lot of sense for the city, and puts it in the hands of the companies who can respond a lot faster to the changes in technology than the city can,” says Shor.

Nick Sbordone, Communication Director for the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, adds that “Anyone who wants to come in and work with the city to come up with creative and innovative ways to provide this service would be welcomed. I don’t think that companies would be doing this if it was going to significantly impact the bottom line. I think there is a value there that is above what might just be pure profit.”

Following suit, advertising companies Titan and Van Wagner have absorbed the cost of the program at no cost to the public.

All of the current payphone WiFi location are available on the DoITT website, or you can click here for an interactive map listing all ten payphone locations as well as other free WiFi hotspots throughout the five boroughs.