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Free Internet: A 5-minute walk?

Apr 14, 20033 mins
Cellular NetworksHotspotsNetwork Security

If the Alliance for Downtown New York is able to realize its plans, free Internet access soon will be much easier to come by for anyone in lower Manhattan. The experience in the rest of Manhattan bodes well for easy-to-find Internet access and hints that the alliance is just hastening the inevitable, but does not bode well for wireless hot-spot service providers.

According to its Web page, “the Alliance for Downtown New York is the Business Improvement District (BID) serving the area south of Chambers Street.” The group wants 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 4 New York Times, the alliance’s latest way to enhance the quality of life is to install Wi-Fi 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 group’s aim is to make free Internet access available within a 5-minute walk anywhere in lower Manhattan.

Admirable as the alliance’s work is, it seems to be just continuing a well-established trend of making free Wi-Fi Internet connections available in Manhattan. By last fall, the Public Internet Project had found almost 10,000 open Wi-Fi access points in Manhattan and the Times reports that this number is now up to 13,000. The density of these access points matches 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 turn on your computer in other parts.

This trend is quite good news for people like me who travel a lot and like to check their mail (too) frequently. But it’s real bad news for companies trying to make money by selling Wi-Fi Internet access. Companies such as T-Mobile (which provides fee-based ‘Net access in more than 2,000 locations around the country, including Starbucks, Borders bookstores and airports), and Cometa Networks, which has a 5-minute walk in the city or drive in the country plan (see Has the rainbow landed yet?).

T-Mobile just reduced its access fees by quite a bit, but I do not know if that was because its price was wrong from the beginning or because competing with free offerings is getting harder as more free access emerges. (a research view of the difficulty of pricing services like this).

I would be remiss if I wrote about Wi-Fi and did not mention security. Actually, it’s Wi-Fi that is remiss in the security department. The only security is that which the user brings by employing secure Web or encrypted tunnels (that is, VPNs). Real wireless security seems around the corner, but the best strategy is to assume it’s not 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.