Free WiFi in NYC Parks Not So Free

New deal between city and cable companies will bring free Wifi to parks -- with a catch

By Jonathan Eiseman
|  Wednesday, Sep 15, 2010  |  Updated 5:46 PM EDT
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Free WiFi in NYC Parks Not So Free

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Free WiFi in city parks won't at all be free under a current plan.

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Time Warner cable and Cablevision have agreed to provide Wifi service to 32 parks in exchange for a 10-year renewal of the companies incredibly profitable cable-television franchises. However, there is a catch.

Under the deal, unless you are a subscriber to Cablevision or Time Warner, the Wifi will only be free for three ten-minute sessions a month, adding up to a paltry 30 minutes per person. After that, you will be charged 99 cents a day for use of the Internet.

Some New Yorkers don’t understand how that's a benefit to the community.

“That’s just stupid,” says Jennifer, who lives on the Upper West Side. “It’s unfair to pigeonhole the entire city like that. In my building I’m not even allowed to get Time Warner or Cablevision. What am I supposed to do, pay 30 bucks a month just to sit in Central Park with a computer?”

City Councilwoman Gale Brewer (D-Manhattan), who heads the Council’s Technology in Government Committee, has been fighting for free Wifi for some time, and has made it a signature issue.

“I very strongly believe that WiFi should be completely free,” she said. “People who are going to a park with their computers may not be able to afford the costs, and they’re the ones who will need it most.”

She also expressed concerns of the logistics of this plan, saying, “How will this even work? Who is it that is going to be looking at and taking our information?”

A spokesman for the city’s Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications said that the city is still figuring out the logistics of how the new Wifi system will operate.

“The deal is still in the works, so it’s still too early to say about the mechanisms of how everything will work,” said Nick Spordone, a spokesperson for the DoITT. “But we think that we have come up with a truly innovative way to bring WiFi to New York’s parks.”

Spordone added that this deal does not stop any of the parks from creating their own WiFi deals independently. “This is just an option, it’s not the only option. This doesn’t preclude any other deals.”

Cable television franchising deals have become a cash cow for Time Warner and Cablevision, with the companies taking in over $2 billion in just city cable-tv revenues, while the city receives 5% of that in franchise fees.

However, because the city is not legally allowed to take any revenue from internet and digital phone service, the companies will also provide more than $30 million in upgrades to the city’s communication infrastructure and will increase the number of Public, Educational and Government Channels available on their systems to 17 from 5.

Michael Kolesar, from Manhattan, worries about the safety concerns of the Wifi. “As a consumer, people should be wary of who they are giving their information to when they pay for this.”

Before these deals can become official, the cable companies must negotiate separate funding deals with the community access channels in each borough, and must be signed off by the city’s Franchise and Concession Review Committee and the state’s Public Service Commission.

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