Residents Get Creative in Installing High-Speed Wireless Internet Networks
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
While the 15,000 residents of Beech Grove, Ind., are getting fully wired for wireless Internet access – and even San Francisco and Philadelphia have plans to build citywide networks – New York is in the “let’s talk about it” stage, and the city only recently passed legislation to establish a “temporary Broadband Advisory Committee” to review its options.
Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff said in a meeting last month that he didn’t think the city will ever have blanketed wireless access. The delay is somewhat understandable. Developing a wireless broadband strategy in New York isn’t as easy as naming an official city drink. Physically, it’s a difficult place to install a network, given the dense population and number of tall buildings. Many New Yorkers are therefore patching together their own solutions, some with a splash of creativity.
“WiFi isn’t ideal in New York,” the vice president for the telecom policy group of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, Wendy Lader, said. “It can be difficult to broadcast WiFi to anything higher than the third or fourth floor. Plus, when you’re trying to wire a place as densely populated as Manhattan, you would need a huge number of antennas, which presents a whole other set of issues.”
Although there are already public hot spots in places like Bryant Park and Tompkins Square Park, as well as in countless restaurants and bars, many New Yorkers still pay cable and DSL providers for service that is at times spotty. Instead of waiting for a grand citywide plan, many New Yorkers and real estate developers have taken matters into their own hands.
NYCWireless, a scrappy nonprofit group founded in 2001, has been working steadily to help individuals and groups install public wireless Internet access networks. The president and executive director of the group, Dana Spiegel, insists it isn’t an impossible, or cost-prohibitive, feat.
“It’s really up to the organization that’s funding the network to decide how much they want to spend on it. And after the network is built, for the most part, it’s a fixed cost,” Mr. Spiegel said. “If you’re wiring your building with a T1 line, that can run between $500 to a couple of thousand a month, but that cost can be split between 20 to 40 people, or however many people are sharing it.”
A public policy consultant who lives on the Upper West Side, Tom Vitullo-Martin, for example, couldn’t get a phone or cable company to wire his building for broadband service in 2000. Frustrated by his lack of options, he hired a local company, Lan2Net, to install a T1 line in his building (a T1 line is dedicated high-speed service typically used in workplaces). The line was split so that the building could offer service to tenants in all 225 units. He estimates the initial cost for the equipment was about $60,000.
To cover monthly costs, tenants in Mr. Vitullo-Martin’s building pay $30 to $40 a month for the service, depending on the access speed, while Internet access through traditional cable and DSL providers can cost $60 a month. (Verizon famously offers DSL service for less than $20, but it requires a land line, which likely costs at least upward of $20 a month.)
Mr. Vitullo-Martin’s plan may sound like a bargain, but he estimates that only 40% of the tenants take advantage of the T1 service.
“It’s not as high as we thought it would be.We have a lot of longtime tenants here – the oldest tenant is 104 – and a lot of people who have never used a computer,” Mr. Vitullo-Martin said.
No doubt those demographics will change, and in the meantime, the service, which was formed in partnership between the tenants association and the building owner, is turning a modest profit. “We wanted to at least bank a return on our money and to have a good service. We’re sort of there,” he said.
Mr. Vitullo-Martin was ahead of his time. Buildings under construction now are almost always pre-wired for high-speed access, according to Herbert Hauser, president of Midtown Technologies, an engineering firm that designs networks for both residential and commercial buildings.
“Information access is a utility now, just like water and heating – new home buyers expect to be in a wired environment, just like their college dorms. Sometimes broadband service costs are just included in monthly maintenance fees,” Mr. Hauser says.
Because high-speed Internet access is perceived as a necessity – and not just a frivolous, cream-on-top amenity – developers and special interest groups have dedicated enormous amounts of time and resources to figuring out how to finance and install broadband service in low-income housing developments.
Martin Dunn, the founder and president of Dunn Development Corporation, a private affordable housing developer, worked with NYCWireless to wire two housing projects for WiFi Internet access, so tenants can use the Internet for free.
“The idea isn’t just to put a roof over people’s heads,” Mr. Dunn said. “The idea is to give them the opportunity to get ahead. Aside from all the conveniences that come with the Internet, for economic opportunities and educational opportunities, you need to have access.”
It’s a tricky proposition, since many tenants don’t even have computers. Mr. Dunn has computer rooms set up in the developments, but he’s also looking into ways he can offer discounted computers for tenants.
One Economy, a nonprofit that works toward providing high-speed Internet access to low-income earners, has a fairly grand plan in the works to install high-speed access in no fewer than 10 new affordable housing projects in New York, which have between 30 units and 129 units each.
“These buildings are going to be up for years,” the vice president of the Northeast for One Economy, Mark Levine, said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get broadband in there now.”
The news gets better: The projects are being developed with funding from access@home, a five-year $1 billion initiative, and tenants in the 10 projects won’t have to pay for Internet access or a computer.
“When we first started pitching this, people in the housing universe didn’t get it. They were very slow to understand that the Internet needs to be included in housing, just like electricity or a phone line,” Mr. Levine says. “Now it’s hard to imagine moving into an apartment without Internet access – it’d be like living without a refrigerator.”