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Can Wi-Fi make it in Manhattan?

New York is taking hard look at municipal wireless services. City wants to bring affordable broadband to the masses.

A correction was made to this story. Read below for details.

If Wi-Fi can make it in New York, it can make it anywhere.

New York City lawmakers are taking a long, hard look at using 802.11-based Wi-Fi or some other technology to get the city's roughly 8 million citizens access to broadband.

New York's interest in municipal broadband comes just as the citywide Wi-Fi buzz hits a fever pitch. Other cities, such as Philadelphia, New Orleans and San Francisco, have already started down the Wi-Fi path, but if New York builds out its own Wi-Fi network, it will be the biggest deployment of municipal Wi-Fi in the country, and perhaps the world.

"It's likely not a question of 'if' but 'when'," said Craig Mathias, an analyst with Farpoint Group of Ashland, Mass. "Every major city is going to have some kind of citywide Wi-Fi access. It will become an expectation like electricity or telephone service. But New York is definitely a challenge from a technology perspective. You may not be able to get it in every nook and cranny."

At this point New York is still in the very early stages of planning its broadband strategy. While cities like Philadelphia, New Orleans and San Francisco are moving full steam ahead on their projects, New York is still just trying to get a commission together to look at the issue.

On Monday, city council member Gale A. Brewer, chairwoman of the committee on Technology in Government, held a legislative hearing on a proposed bill that would create a special commission to advise Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the city council on how the city can get affordable broadband access to all its residents. The goal of the commission will be to learn about the different technology options available and educate the public about them. The vote on the bill is scheduled for Dec. 21.

"The more hearings we have, the more I realize how complex this issue really is," Brewer said in an interview after the meeting. "The public needs to be informed about what we're trying to do. And I really want them to be demanding action from us. But in order to do that, they need to know the language of the technology, and the only way that happens is to have public discussion."

So far, Bloomberg hasn't endorsed the new legislation, but Brewer said she is confident he will support it.

Brewer and others see broadband--whether it be through Wi-Fi or some other technology like WiMax, broadband over power line, or even competitive DSL--as a way to spur economic development. Only about 40 percent of New Yorkers currently use a broadband service because it's too expensive, she said during the hearing.

Bridging the digital divide
As with Philadelphia and San Francisco, New York officials want networks to be built that will bridge the digital divide so that even the city's poorest residents have affordable access to high-speed Internet connections. Andrew Rasiej, a technology entrepreneur and longtime technology advisor to city and state officials, testified before the committee on Monday. Rasiej, who ran for New York City public advocate in 2005, was pushing the idea of citywide Wi-Fi access as a major issue in his campaign. Although he ended up losing the election, Raisiej feels his campaign helped bring to light the Wi-Fi question for New York politicians.

"We're in the same situation that we were in back in 1934 when the federal government made universal access to telephones," he said. "Broadband is the dial tone of our time. It's long overdue that the city form some sort of committee to look at this issue. But today's efforts are a positive first step."

City broadband projects have been a hot topic during the past couple of years, as many smaller communities have started building their own fiber to the home networks or Wi-Fi networks. But critics have said that cities and municipalities should not get involved in building or operating their own networks, especially if it means using taxpayer money to do it. Telephone companies and cable operators around the country have effectively lobbied several state legislatures to pass laws restricting these networks.

While the state of New York doesn't have any of these kinds of laws on the books, experts in New York City say they are cognizant of these issues.

"The worst thing that could happen is for the city to try to build one these networks and have it fail," Rasiej said. "It would set the whole muni Wi-Fi movement way back."

Many city officials say they are against the city spending money to build out any kind of broadband infrastructure. But others insist that it can play a large role in creating a more competitive market for broadband services. Technology experts and community advocates believe the city can enter into a public-private partnership, such as the ones proposed in other cities.

For example, EarthLink, which has won bids in Philadelphia, Portland, Ore., and Anaheim, Calif., foots the bill for building the network. It will then offer Internet service over this network to city residents and provide the city with bandwidth for emergency and municipal use. EarthLink also plans to offer wholesale broadband access to other ISPs, giving customers even more choice. For their part, the cities provide access to public rights so that EarthLink can install the wireless radios.

San Francisco, which is still in the process of evaluating bids for its wireless network, is considering a similar model where it would allow a third party to build and operate the network.

Some technology experts fear that leaving the broadband issue entirely to the private sector could stifle innovation in New York City and put the city at a big disadvantage when it comes to attracting businesses.

"This notion that the private sector will take care of it just doesn't work," said Bruce Bernstein, president of The New York Software Industry Association, who also testified in front of the committee. "No one is sure if the Philadelphia project will really work. EarthLink has a business plan that's under attack. But the city's efforts are already attracting businesses to the city. I don't see a mass exodus to Philadelphia, but New York could be in trouble if we do nothing."

 

Correction: This article incorrectly stated the percentage of New Yorkers who are currently using broadband. Only about 40 percent of New Yorkers use a broadband service.