Wi-Fi 'Hotspots' Go Live in Downtown NYC

By Ryan Naraine

April 29, 2003

One of the nation's oldest business districts has turned to modern technology -- 802.11-compliant public network nodes -- to lure visitors and businesses to the region.

New York City's Downtown Alliance has turned to modern technology -- Wi-Fi 'hotspots' -- to lure business to one of the oldest business districts.

On Friday (May 1), the Alliance is expected to launch three public 802.11-compliant public network nodes to give away high-speed wireless Internet access and four more will go live later in May.

The first public 'hotspot' will be set up at City Hall Park, Bowling Green Park, Rector Park later this week. Later this month, nodes will be available in Liberty Plaza Park, Vietnam Veteran's Memorial Part at 55 Water Street and at South Street Seaport.

Jordan Silbert, Director of Rebuilding Initiatives for the Downtown Alliance, told internetnews.com plans are in place for a seventh location within the Alliance's coverage area -- roughly from City Hall to the Battery, from the East River to West Street.

The 'hotspots' are being built and maintained by wireless networks consulting firm Emenity, which is a spin-off of the non-profit NYC Wireless community group. NYC Wireless was among the pioneers of open wireless 'hotspots' in public spaces throughout the New York region.

Emenity spokesman Anthony Townsend told internetnews.com the rollout of the 'hotspots' downtown would create a Wi-Fi enabled zone "anywhere within a five-minute walk in Lower Manhattan.

Emenity, which also built a Wi-Fi 'hotspot' in Bryant Park on 42nd Street, said a single access point would be used alongside a dedicated server at each location. Technically, the 'hotspot' can allow up to 254 simultaneous connection but if usage trends upwards, he said the company would add access points and bandwidth to avoid overload.

"We're expecting dozens of users in the interim, rather than hundreds so I don't anticipate a problem with usage," Townsend said.

For the Downtown Alliance, which is spending about $50,000 to set up the 'hotspots' and less than $20,000 a year to keep them running, the returns are immeasurable, Silbert explained.

"They (Emenity) gave us a fantastic deal on this and the benefits are huge for our district. First of all, it's going to be a wonderful area amenity for downtown residents, workers and visitors," he said.

More importantly, Silbert public networks will be an "innovative way of generating business for area retailers and activity for area attractions."

Once the networks are up and running, anyone with a wireless-enabled laptop or device can sit in one of the area parks and access the signal to log on for an unlimited time.

"It's been tough in lower Manhattan in the last 18 months. We're looking at using cutting edge technology to help generate interest for the area. This is a powerful demonstration that lower Manhattan is at the cutting edge and is open for business. It's important to remind people that we have the most robust powerful infrastructure anywhere, especially after the destruction of September 11," he added.

Last year, the Alliance installed an 802.11b WLAN in a base station at 25 Broadway to power the Bowling Green Park 'hotspot and Silbert said the success of that test led to the decision to expand the networks throughout the Alliance's coverage area.

He said the locations were strategically chosen to allow "anyone to walk to a 'hotspot' within five minutes from any point below Chambers Street."

For Emenity, the Downtown Alliance deal adds a big-name client to its roster for wireless network consulting services. The six-employee firm is avoiding the subscription-based Wi-Fi services -- adopted by Starbucks and cafes nationwide -- in favor of free public networks that "differentiate real estate space," Townsend explained.

"We're promoting a different kind of business model for Wi-Fi. Instead of subscriptions from subscribers, we see value in providing easy to use wireless networks," he said. For the client, the value lies in modernizing real estate space to offer high-speed wireless access.

In terms of what it costs to put free Wi-Fi in a building lobby, it's a trivial amount of money. But it does differentiate the building as a place to do business," Townsend said.

To install, run and manage a Wi-Fi 'hotspot' (a single access point and including bandwidth), Emenity charges less than $20,000 a year, Townsend said, noting that the company was looking at a wider variety of spaces beyond the coffee shops and hotel lobbies.

"We're at the beginning of a very large transformation of the way people use use computers. Using a laptop or a PDA in a mobile environment is a lot different from using the desktop PC. With Wi-Fi, it's about communication. It's about finding bits of information on the road and not about doing research and staying online for a very long time," he explained.

While the Downtown Alliance's public Wi-Fi networks is being hypes as the "largest free wireless zone" in the country, it's certainly not the first. On the West Coast, the Bay Area Wireless Users Group (BAWUG) has been busy promoting wireless use for the Greater San Francisco Bay Area.



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