Big Apple Wi-Fi… When?

Beleaguered proponents of a citywide Wi-Fi network in New York City are desperately trying to make a meal of the thin crust Mayor Michael Bloomberg threw them recently when he reversed his previous position and supported the formation of a task force to look into the idea.

It’s not immediately clear what good if any such a task force can do, however, and it would be foolish to think the Republican mayor, a staunch free marketer, has changed his political spots and will soon embrace the idea of city involvement in such a project. New York is in fact no closer than it was to joining Philadelphia, San Francisco and other major cities that have launched citywide wireless projects.

Councilmember Gale Brewer, who introduced the bill to set up the task force, has been pushing for city involvement in some kind of alternative broadband access system – possibly Wi-Fi, but more likely a wired/wireless hybrid – for over three years.

“We started on this long before San Francisco and Philadelphia and Paris,” Brewer points out.

Like some others in city government, Brewer believes citizens and, especially, small businesses are poorly served with broadband access by the virtual duopoly of Time Warner and Verizon. In many boroughs outside Manhattan, access speeds are slow where service is available, and in many places, especially in non-residential areas where the cable companies are not obliged to go, there is no low-cost broadband service at all.

“New York has a ton of small businesses outside Manhattan, and a lot of them can’t afford broadband connections,” says Bruce Lai,  Brewer’s chief of staff and a past policy director of the city’s committee on technology in government. “There are whole swaths of Brooklyn, Bronx and Queens where you can’t get business-class cable modem service and DSL lines are very poor quality.”

Brewer and Lai favor the approach other cities have taken, partnering with private sector companies and granting rights of way to put radios and antennas on city-owned poles and buildings as a way of fostering development of a network that can provide low-cost broadband access everywhere. Like politicians in those other cities, they see this as a valuable economic development initiative and a way to bridge the digital divide.  

“We believe technology in general and broadband access in particular makes for a more level playing field,” Brewer says. “And that’s important, maybe more so in this city than others, because it’s so big and so complicated.”

Mayor Bloomberg, however, has steadfastly opposed the idea of the city getting involved in this way. According to Lai, it’s part of the mayor’s free market stance. If there’s a business to be made out of building and running a citywide wireless network, the free marketers argue, some enterprising private sector group will come in and do it.

It hasn’t happened yet. As Brewer notes, there are 600 Wi-Fi hotspots from a variety of providers dotted around New York. Wi-Fi Salon, a local company with a community development focus, has worked with limited success on projects to put Wi-Fi in some parks around the city. Wi-Fi Salon founder Marshall Brown declined to talk to Wi-Fi Planet for this story because he didn’t want to tip his hand, he told us. There is also a much-delayed project – run by the state for some reason – to put Wi-Fi in the city’s subway system. While the subway network might ultimately be folded in to some larger municipal network, these disparate initiatives do not add up to a citywide solution.

The best hope for an all private sector initiative is a company like EarthLink, which has been selected as the partner in Philadelphia and Anaheim, California, and is in contention for municipal network contracts in a few other mid-sized cities. EarthLink is certainly interested in New York. The company has had discussions with Brewer and others, and it believes it is the only logical contender.

“A lot of local groups are interested of course because, well, New York is New York,” says Donald Berryman, President of EarthLink’s Municipal Networks Division. “But we haven’t seen any group [showing an interest] that would be able to provide the kind of network and services EarthLink and its partners can.”

Would EarthLink consider coming into New York without city involvement? “It’s a good question,” Berryman says. “Theoretically, we could do it without, but it helps in a lot of ways to market with the city.”

The company would be left on its own to navigate the shoals of borough and community politics, something it doesn’t have to deal with in cities where the government is involved. It also wouldn’t be able to undertake a true citywide network, but would have to start by cherry-picking the boroughs or neighborhoods it deemed most likely to succeed.

All of this being said, EarthLink doesn’t entirely rule out a solo initiative.

“We haven’t made a decision anywhere else to do it without a city-authorized project,” Berryman says. “But it certainly could be possible.”

While New York has more urban canyons than most cities — and urban canyons play havoc with designing and building wireless broadband networks — the challenges are not so overwhelming that they can’t be overcome, Berryman says. The density of the population and the fact that so many people don’t have access to low-cost broadband connections – as many as 60 percent, according to one estimate Berryman has heard – make New York very attractive despite the challenges.

“If that’s true,” Berryman says of the 60 percent figure, “we can afford to spend much more money going after the market than we could elsewhere.”

EarthLink is likely only entertaining the possibility of a solo initiative because city involvement seems so unlikely with Bloomberg in charge. The task force, which will have representation from city council and industry and local groups, is probably not the breakthrough Brewer and Lai desperately want to believe it is. Its only mandates, according to Lai, are to hold public hearings in each borough and table a report each year. At best, it may be able to raise awareness in city agencies and among the public, but that could take a long time.

Too long, Berryman says. “I certainly think it can add value,” he says diplomatically. “But the thought of waiting two years  – that’s way too long. By then, the top 25 cities could already be up and running.”

To make matters worse, the task force actually has a mandate that could last as long as three years, not just two. Chicago, which is expected to issue an RFP for a municipal network this quarter, set up a similar task force, Berryman points out, but its committee only deliberated for about six months.

Lai and Brewer, meanwhile, cling to the hope that the task force findings will convince Bloomberg the city needs to do more. “It’s very complicated, I know,” Brewer says. “Most of our colleagues [on council and in city agencies] don’t really understand. So we’re going to try to educate them [through the task force] and create a bigger demand for this.”

“Compared to other cities, yeah, we’re well behind,” Lai says. “And I know it sounds like a slow process, but I think it’s going to happen in New York.”

The question is… when?

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