Manhattan's Almost Ubiquitous Wi-Fi

By Eric Griffith

May 26, 2006

Telkonet/NuVisions hotzones could be the closest thing the Big Apple has to a citywide Wi-Fi network — with or without the city's help.

New York City lags behind many other big cities in its plans — even its seeming interest — in offering a Wi-Fi network to the masses. City parks were supposed to be unwired by now, but only one, Battery Park, was deployed (though the city is hoping contractor Wi-Fi Salon will do better with other parks this year). To date, the best traction has come from the free-net community, in particular that of NYC Wireless, which has installed service free to anyone in Bryant Park, Union Square Park, City Hall Park, and the South Street Seaport and other public spaces.

So it might come as a surprise to hear that there's an ISP in town creating overlapping hotzones that could lead to a citywide network in Manhattan -- and maybe even in the outer boroughs.

Germantown, Maryland-based Telkonet's main business has long been providing powerline-based IP connections. Earlier this year, they bought out Microwave Satellite Technologies (MST) and its NuVisions trademark. Together, they've been providing triple-play services — voice, video and data — to buildings throughout Manhattan (and soon will add IPTV). They bring in a Gigabit Ethernet connection, connect it to the building powerlines, and all the residents are ready for service.

Wi-Fi became an extra bonus when Telkonet connected high-power access points to that backhaul to create hotzones around the island.

It's not a truly 'citywide' wireless network yet, but Frank Matarazzo, President of Telkonet/MST, says, "You have to look at this as overlapping coverage areas." He compares it to cell tower coverage, and believes that "as we light up the next 50 or so buildings, there will be almost total ubiquity."

NuVisions broadband customers get completely free access to the Wi-Fi connections no matter where they are in the city. Right now, those locations include areas around Trump Tower, Trump World Tower, Trump Place properties, Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, UN Plaza, Riverside Park (from 60th to 79th Street), the south half of Central Park, and all of Roosevelt Island in the East River.

Matarazzo didn't want to go into the equipment they use for Wi-Fi ("that's the secret sauce," he says), but did say that the company builds some APs themselves using MIMO technology inside. "We have a different approach than the usual Wi-Fi guy," he says. "With the right power, you can contour the signal. We're bringing engineering to bear on the network." He believes part of their success comes from not going with a mesh network, which he says in many cases use the same frequency for both the backhaul and the access. "That's inherently a choke point," he says. "Our backhaul is Gigabit Ethernet. The access is 802.11a/b/g compatible. We're not congesting the backhaul with the extra traffic."

Manhattan is a model they intend to take elsewhere. They've identified eight cities in the United States where they'll launch, and are in talks with providers in the Middle East about doing the same in cities there.

In Manhattan, NuVisions broadband costs range from $12 a month for simple 256Kbps dial-up replacement to $50 for a 5Mbps connection, with the average customer paying about $35 a month for 2Mbps download and 1Mbps upload connections. Almost all are using powerline backhaul in-building, though some locations have concurrent Wi-Fi and powerline inside.

All those subscribers can access the NuVisions InteractiveWiFi hotzones at no extra charge. Visitors pay $10 for 10 hours, and one big difference between that fee and those of "day-pass" fees from WISPs is that with NuVisions, the minutes can be used over an extremely long time.

"It's a debited minutes model," says Tony Matarazzo, now a consultant to MST (and one of the original founders with brother Frank). "If we were customers, what would we like to see? In Starbucks, I want access I can use tomorrow if I only used it for five minutes today." Thus, the 10 hours of Wi-Fi access are all rolled over, so customers can continue using them until the minutes run out -- for up to a year. (They also sell 30 days of unlimited access that does not roll over, for $30.)

iPass and Boingo remote access customers can use the NuVisions hotspots at no extra charge through a pre-existing roaming agreement.

It all sounds very promising, but one thing missing that most other cities are insisting on is some form of free access, usually advertising-supported. Frank Matarazzo is not against it, but says it's a chicken-and-egg thing.

"To attract advertisers, you need to prove eyeballs are at the hotspots," he says. "You can't do that until you build, so people like Wi-Fi Salon are stuck in this quagmire of what to do first. I don't think any ad support will come along until there's traction and they know they can get X number of eyeballs." He says if the company could attract the likes of Google — which plans to provide free access with advertising support in San Francisco with partner EarthLink — he thinks NuVisions could make the transition, and he notes that it has the numbers from monitoring the hotspots via its network operations center (NOC) to make it worth the advertiser's while.

Of course, they're under no obligation to offer a free service, since they're not officially sanctioned by the city of New York. (In fact, they were nice enough to make sure there's free access to all city government and parks department Web sites through the network.) Still, that's not saying that Telkonet wouldn't like to work with the city -- Frank Matarazzo says he's extended an offer — which is still good — to work with them, but was shunned.

"We don't necessarily need to work with them," he points out. "We're servicing off of private property." By doing that, they don't require access to the light poles and other city-owned property other wireless ISPs like EarthLink require to install gear. The city seems stuck in a mindset that only the parks — and there are 1,700 of them — are worth unwiring. "I don't think they've seen the light yet," he says. "It's unfortunate; they don't recognize what's available... [but] it's not too late to change."



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