NYC Presses Ahead with ‘Free’ Wi-Fi Despite Previous Failures

Published August 1, 2009

Despite recently having to close down eight free wi-fi spots in New York City parks because none was profitable, the city’s Department of Information and Technology and Telecommunications is aiming to have another go.

The department wants to put free wi-fi in 40 hotspots in 32 different New York City parks this year.

Bronxville, New York-based Wi-Fi Salon offered free service in Central Park and other public spaces starting in 2004, but it shut it down in October when the public-private partnership failed to raise enough revenue for the company.

Wi-Fi Salon went out of business in December.

City Council Remains Hopeful

Councilwoman Gale Brewer (D-Upper West Side) is one of the city’s leading proponents of public wi-fi networks and one of the first to support installing free wi-fi in public parks. She now admits the effort is a financially losing proposition, but she says wi-fi is a right and thus should be fully financed by public dollars.

“Wi-fi in the parks is a public service, and for a public service you need some kind of city support,” Brewer told The New York Post. Brewer said she believes business-improvement districts can meet part of the cost of maintaining publicly subsidized wi-fi.

Losing Proposition

Adam Thierer, an Internet regulation analyst at the Progress & Freedom Foundation in Washington, DC, says it doesn’t make sense for municipal authorities such as those in New York City to spend limited public dollars on an investment likely to become outdated rapidly.

“It hardly makes sense for municipal governments to assume the significant risks involved in becoming a player in the broadband marketplace,” Thierer said. “The nagging ‘problem’ of technological change is especially acute for municipal entities operating in a dynamic marketplace like broadband.

“Their unwillingness or inability to adapt to technological change could leave their communities with rapidly outmoded networks and leave taxpayers footing the bill,” Thierer added.

‘Why Is Anyone Pursuing This?’

Robert Crandall, a telecommunications expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, is not convinced free wi-fi in New York City public spaces is worth the investment, but he thinks it probably won’t cost much because the city won’t provide good service.

“A series of wi-fi hot spots provided by the city is of both limited value and probably limited cost,” Crandall said. “Few people are going to sit in a park in order to use broadband. I doubt that the city will provide unlimited power to their laptops.

 “It just seems like a very minor issue,” Crandall added. “Why is anyone pursuing this?”

Thomas Cheplick ([email protected]) writes from Cambridge, Massachusetts.