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New York's Chelsea Neighborhood Is the Latest Free Public Wifi Experiment

BY Nick Judd | Tuesday, January 8 2013

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was on hand this morning to announce free wifi covering all the outdoor areas in a stretch of Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood, from Eighth Avenue west and from Gansevoort Street to 19th Street.

The announcement is the latest gesture by the city that indicates Internet access has become, if not a necessity, then a basic perk of city life. Coverage in Chelsea joins paid service coming to New York City subway stations; wifi provided by AT&T in many public parks; free wifi in several public spaces in the Financial District provided by the Downtown Alliance, which also manages a business improvement district; DUMBO in Brooklyn, the first neighborhood in New York to offer free wifi on this scale; parts of Red Hook; and a loose collection of hotspots throughout the city.

If BIDs are the type of organization expected to set up free outdoor wifi in a neighborhood, that puts Internet access in a class of local benefit that also includes sidewalk trash removal, compacting garbage cans, e-waste recycling programs and map-dispensing private security officers.

While Bloomberg and Sen. Chuck Schumer spoke at the announcement, credit for the actual work goes to Google, which has had a New York headquarters opposite Chelsea Market for several years, and to The Chelsea Improvement Company. Twenty-nine antennas are expected to blanket the neighborhood's outdoor areas in Internet coverage, serving an audience that includes 2,000 residents of the New York City Housing Authority's Fulton Houses development, Google Chief Information Officer Ben Fried said Tuesday morning.

Google is sponsoring this network for its first two years.

Earlier in the 2000s, several big cities began to dream of ways to provide municipal wifi. In Philadelphia, for example, Earthlink built a $17 million network that was intended to provide low-cost Internet access throughout the city. Then the company announced in 2008 that it was scrapping the plan. While Google's name on Tuesday's announcement might bring hope that another revolutionary Internet idea, Google-provided gigabit access via Google Fiber, was headed New York's way, Mashable's Alex Fitzpatrick reports that is absolutely not the case.

But while a patchwork of BID-funded, smaller-scale networks seems to be sprouting in New York in a bottom-up way, Schumer suggested that perhaps some federal fertilizer was in order. Capital New York's Dana Rubinstein captures the relevant exchange between Schumer and Bloomberg:

"It's not very expensive, so the mayor and I are talking maybe we can do this for the whole city," said Schumer, who had downloaded his talking points to his iPad using the new Wi-Fi.

"With federal money, we'd love to do it," said Bloomberg.

"Excellent," said Schumer. "It would be a smidgen of what Sandy is costing us."

This post has been updated.