RealTime IT News

Sunday in the Park with Wi-Fi

Wi-Fi Salon, a New York City start-up, is taking an aggressive, grassroots approach to the substantial—and as yet mostly unclaimed—NYC wireless market. With a strategy that mirrors nonprofit endeavors in all but one regard—the generation of revenue streams as a method of sustainability and scalability—Wi-Fi Salon intends to make New York the “Wi-Fi Capital of the World” while also maintaining community-based content and services.

Last week, the company celebrated its first deployment at Battery Gardens Restaurant, which is situated at the southern tip of Battery Park in Manhattan. Customers at the restaurant’s new Beer Garden can now enjoy complimentary high-speed Wi-Fi with their beers and views of Ellis Island and The Statue of Liberty.

Marshall Brown, founder and CEO of Wi-Fi Salon, is rolling out high-performance Wi-Fi hotspots in NYC's major parks and neighborhoods as part of his plan to create a more community-minded wireless future for the city.

“This is all very grassroots,” says Brown. “From the bottom up, both socially and economically—and politically. I think we’re going from a top-down world to one that’s basically peer-to-peer, or from the bottom up.”

Brown, who taught literature at Harvard for several years before becoming an IT consultant and then launching Wi-Fi Salon in 2002, says, “This is a big digital sandbox for everyone to come play in.”

Wi-Fi Salon, which currently employs about a dozen people, will be launching eight access points (APs) in Central Park in July, all of which will offer free Internet access to the public using a backhaul of roughly 64Mbps, which, Brown says, is “roughly the equivalent of 30 T1 lines.”

The network will eventually provide Wi-Fi signals to the entire south and west sides of the 843-acre park, which receives more than 20 million visitors each year. The Central Park deployment is not being funded by the city, but rather Wi-Fi Salon is operating as a concessions vendor and sharing its profits with the Parks Department.

In order to fund the initiative, Wi-Fi Salon is counting on sponsorships and partnerships with local, national or multinational companies who see the benefit of reaching those 20 million visitors—or some specific portion of them—with events, custom content, or other cross-promotional projects.

“Given the cost of infrastructure and bandwidth, there’s not a lot that needs to be done to cover the revenues for us. We’re banking on somebody, a media company or a local bank, to be the local portal sponsor,” says Brown. “It would be, ‘The Battery Portal: Brought to You by American Express (or Sony).’ Also, with Sony (or Apple or H-P), let’s say a new Wi-Fi enabled product comes out. What better place to launch it than at one of my hotspots where there’s 30 times the bandwidth? We could have 100 PlayStation Portables playing off one hotspot. There’s nothing like it in the country.”

On the subject of hardware, Brown prefers to keep quiet. “That’s our secret sauce,” he says. “My engineers have their own ways of picking best of breed products. Some of it is off-the-shelf; some of it’s not really. These are trade secrets.”

The new Central Park deployments will provide wireless to popular locations including: The Delacourt Theatre; The Central Park Zoo; SummerStage; The Dairy Visitors Center; Sheep Meadow; The Great Lawn; and Loeb Boat House.

“We’re going to use the same kind of infrastructure that we used to light The Battery,” says Brown. “One antenna for the eight locations.”

Wi-Fi Salon was granted the Central Park project after competing with several other vendors for the job.

“We submitted a proposal to the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation,” says Brown. “We argued to them that the future of Wi-Fi will not be about mere access; it will be about content and sponsored content, and the applications and services the network can support. First, we developed portal software so that at every location there has location-specific content and the community around each location can manage and create content. They can add links and add events. You can have your own personal blog, post articles, photo galleries, e-mail campaigns. It’s very grassroots, bottom-up media creation. We’re looking not just to the bloggers, but the video bloggers.”

Not one to think small, he has big plans for Wi-Fi Salon, and its portal provider, Portalize.

“The larger picture is that we have the infrastructure capability to blanket the entire city,” says Brown. “I’m saying to the city of New York, each of these APs can support 255 Wi-Fi hotspots each. If each Wi-Fi hotspot covers 300 feet in circumference, I could cover a square mile of open public location and I have 20 locations. This can change New York.”