New York Parks To Offer Free Web Access

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The New York Sun

Forget paying a fee to log in at the coffee shop or hacking into a neighbor’s wireless connection: Starting this summer, New Yorkers will have free access to the Internet at locations in the city’s largest parks, officials said yesterday.

The city is getting ready to unveil eight wireless “hotspots” in Central Park in July, followed by WiFi locations in nine other parks later in the summer. The expanded Internet access comes nearly two years after the city’s Parks Department first contracted with a company to outfit the locations, which will offer high-speed service to users with laptop computers, PDAs, and other Internet-ready devices.

The new locations would join the city’s current roster of outdoor “hotspots” run by nonprofit groups, which include Bryant Park, parts of Washington Square and Tompkins Square parks, City Hall Park, and Battery Park.

With other American cities moving quickly toward universal broadband access, advocates in New York have grown impatient with the city’s effort to set up wireless service in the parks. “With all due respect to the Parks Department, it is moving very slowly,” the chairwoman of the City Council’s Technology in Government Committee, Gale Brewer, said at a City Hall hearing yesterday. Ms. Brewer is heading a council task force that is exploring the feasibility of offering wireless access citywide, an idea recently approved in Philadelphia.

At the hearing, Parks Department officials told lawmakers that after delays, they were looking to expand wireless access to even more locations across the city and sought input on which parks would best be suited for the technology.

Hooking up the city’s parks has proved more difficult than officials imagined three years ago, when they began to solicit proposals from vendors who would pay a fee to run the wireless systems. An initial request-for-proposal drew only three responses. The company that was ultimately selected, Wi-Fi Salon, negotiated to push back a fall 2005 deadline for having the system up and running after it struggled to secure corporate sponsors.

Under Wi-Fi Salon’s deal with the city, the company will pay a minimum of $30,000 a year, or 10% of the revenue generated from corporate sponsors, whichever figure is greater. The company’s chief executive, Marshall Brown, said it had been difficult to sign corporate sponsors, which were unsure of how many viewers they would reach. Sponsors cannot advertise in the parks other than on the Web page users will encounter when they log on to the Internet. “If somebody is going to spend $1 million, what are they going to get back for it?” Mr. Brown said after the hearing.

In addition to the eight locations in Central Park, the locations where Wi-Fi Salon will set up wireless points include Prospect Park, Van Cortlandt Park, Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Riverside Park, and Washington and Union Square parks. The company is already operating wireless access in Battery Park as part of a pilot started last summer.

The city will try to duplicate the success seen in Bryant Park, a popular destination for wireless access that draws more than 250 users a day. The Bryant Park Restoration Corporation oversees that system, which since 2002 has been supported by Intel Corporation and Google sponsorships.

After appeals from parks advocacy groups, the city released a second request-for-proposal in February for six parks in Brooklyn and Manhattan. It expects wireless service to be available at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, Columbus Park, and the Brooklyn Heights Promenade by the end of the summer, a deputy parks commissioner, Robert Garafola, said at yesterday’s hearing.

For the many New Yorkers seemingly locked to their laptops, the expansion of wireless access cannot come fast enough. But one suggestion at yesterday’s hearing – taking Wi-Fi to the city’s beaches – had even a leading wireless advocate issuing words of caution: “I think it’s a wonderful idea, but you have to be careful about getting sand in your laptop,” the executive director of NYC Wireless, Dana Spiegel, said.

The New York Sun

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