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Free Internet: a 5 minute walk?
By Scott Bradner
If the Alliance for Downtown New York is able to realize its plans, anyone in lower Manhattan will be able to get wireless access to the Internet for free within a five minute walk of wherever they happen to be. But the experience in the rest of Manhattan hints that the Alliance is just hastening the inevitable, and the experience in Manhattan bodes well for easy to find wireless Internet access but does not bode well for wireless hot-spot service providers.
According to their web page "[t]he Alliance for Downtown New York is the Business Improvement District (BID) serving the area south of Chambers Street." (http://www.downtownny.com/) They want to "enhance the quality of life in Lower Manhattan by creating a community for people to live, work and play." According to an article in the April 4th New York Times, the Alliance's latest way to enhance the quality of life is to install WiFi access points in a number of public parks in lower Manhattan and to open them up for free to anyone who wants to use them. The Times quotes an Alliance Vice President as saying that the Alliance's aim is to make free Internet access available within a five minute walk anywhere in lower Manhattan. (I will say that, more of that attitude would enhance my quality of life.)
Admirable as the Alliance's work is, it seems to be just continuing a well-established trend of making free WiFi Internet connections available in Manhattan. By last fall, the Public Internet Project (http://publicinternetproject.org) had found almost 10,000 open WiFi access points in Manhattan alone and the Times reports that this number is now up to 13,000. The density of these access points does match the demographics of the population of Manhattan so it can be a lot longer walk than 5 minutes in some parts of the city but all you have to do is to turn on your computer in others.
This trend is quite good news for people like me who travel a lot and like to check my mail (too) frequently. But its real bad news for companies trying to actually make money by selling WiFi Internet access. Companies like T-Mobile (http://www.t-mobile.com/) who provide fee-based access in over 2,000 locations around the country including Starbucks, Borders book stores and airports, and Cometa Networks (http://www.cometanetworks.com/) (see also http://www.nwfusion.com/columnists/2002/1216bradner.html) who also have a 5 minute walk (in the city or drive in the country) plan.
T-Mobile just reduced their access fees by quite a bit but I do not know if the reduction was because their price was wrong from the beginning or because competing with free is getting harder as there is more free access around. (For a research view of the difficulty of pricing services like this see www.eecs.harvard.edu/~parkes/pubs/online.pdf.)
I would be remiss if I wrote about WiFi and did not mention security, actually, come to think of it, it's WiFi that is remiss in the security department, the only security is the security the user brings by using secure web or encrypted tunnels (VPNs). Real wireless security seems around the corner but the best strategy is to not assume it's there and bring your own.
disclaimer: "Around the corner" for a place with Harvard's long history could still mean "quite a while" but the above is my view not Harvard's.