Earlier today (Wednesday) DoITT released an RFI for “City Wireless Internet Access for New York City Parks and Other Open Spaces” (PIN: 85809RFI0045). I’ve had a chance to review the RFI, and NYCwireless will be responding to it, but I wanted to provide a summary for those of you who haven’t had a chance to read through it yet.
Basically, the City wants to light up more Parks, and is looking for ways to make this happen. We’ve provided lots of suggestions both on and off the record [1, 2, 3], and some of what we’ve said (and certainly what we’ve successfully done) has started to seep through. We should be celebrating that the City is asking questions first before issuing a blanket RFP and they seem to have learned a bit after being burned twice before by the Parks Departments previous RFPs, but the jury is still out on how progressive their ultimate plan will be. This RFI represents baby steps in the right direction, though there’s still a long road ahead for those of us that want to see free Wi-Fi in all city parks and public spaces.
The (Mostly) Good
- DoITT seems to recognize the value in Wi-Fi in parks and public spaces, and indicates that they are clearly aware of the work that organizations other than the Parks Department have done to grow free public Wi-Fi.
- DoITT is open to how they should organize any public-space Wi-Fi initiative, though there are still funding issues (see below).
- More parks are being added to the list of possible Parks Department sanctioned free Wi-Fi, however this does beg the question about how parks not on the “official” list are going to be able to get service.
- The City wants to work with more BIDs in offering free Wi-Fi, though they don’t acknowledge the fact that the BIDs and other organizations that have created free Wi-Fi hotspots have done so without much involvement by the Parks Department, and often in spite of any blockades the Parks Department has put up.
- DoITT is potentially open to other business models for building Wi-Fi hotspots, though as indicated below (and as I have been saying for a number of years), there aren’t any viable ones where businesses can independently fund the buildout and maintenance.
- The City is willing to provide both signage and some publicity for the Wi-Fi hotspots.
- The City will provide free access and use of city-owned property to facilitate the installation of equipment.
- DoITT seems open to reducing insurance requirements for running a hotspot, but even this doesn’t go far enough. We have hotspots where there is NO equipment on park property at all (its on a neighboring building rooftop). Why such installation strategies should require ANY general or personal liability insurance is a mystery (we do carry liability insurance for equipment installation and maintenance).
- Any submissions must be mostly non-proprietary, which means that we should all be able to read whatever companies submit for the RFI (we will publish our submission for all to read on this site). DoITT should go one step further and commit to actually publishing all submissions, so we don’t have to file Freedom of Information Law requests just to get them.
- DoITT talks a lot about “other comparable wireless Internet service” versus Wi-Fi. In the long term, I suppose its important to recognize that laptops and mobile devices may ship with newer wireless standards, but we’re quite a number of years off from this happening, and for the forseeable future, Wi-Fi is it–Apple introduced Wi-Fi on laptops 10 years ago, and those laptops are still compatible with today’s Wi-Fi networks.
- Access to city-owned property isn’t the biggest issue in getting Wi-Fi deployed. Getting reasonably fast internet access lines (or WiMax uplinks) is the biggest problem. NYCwireless has had tremendous success rapidly deploying Wi-Fi equipment on building rooftops and even nearby businesses, but we (and WiFiSalon as well) have spent countless, fruitless hours getting internet lines from Verizon. In a recent example, it took over 4 months to get internet service to Wagner Park, even though our gear was installed within a month of signing a contract.
- DoITT is looking mostly for one or a few companies to step up and do all the work. We’ve long talked about how the City can take a grass-roots approach to getting local parks and public spaces lit up, but for the most part, DoITT is focussing only on the biggest and most prominent locations. This is unfortunate, since the people in lower income and further afield areas are often the ones who benefit the most from such initiatives, but they seem to be mostly left out of this party.
DoITT seems mostly steadfast in their insistence (as the Parks Department has been in the past) that no City funds should be spent on any buildout or maintenance of hotspots. This is still a really big sticking point: The first Parks RFP required that a concessionaire pay significant money to the Parks department, and the second Parks RFP required that a concessionaire pay some proposed amount of money to the Parks department.
There have been only a handful of interested companies (we offered to pay $1), and the WiFiSalon, the only concessionaire that paid any fees was driven out of business by that requirement. Ad revenue is negligible since such networks see a fraction of the impressions that even a second-tier blog sees, and sponsorship dollars are only available to the most prominent parks like Madison Square Park and Bryant Park, and such deals are done only through whole-park sponsorship, not sponsorship of just the Wi-Fi network.
As I’ve said many times before and as the industry has seen countless times, Ad-based business models are unsustainable for individual hotspots and even reasonable sized hotspot networks. If DoITT and the City want to really ensure that free public Wi-Fi should be made available, and that locations other than the most highly-trafficked and well-to-do are served, they need to step up and offer alternative funding models.
One thing to consider is that the companies that can do the installation and maintenance of high-quality outdoor hotspots (there are few) don’t have big advertising or sales teams to make them self-funding. These are two orthogonal specialties and forcing a single company to be capable of both severely limits the applicant pool and threatens the business viability of any participating company. NYCwireless has been successful because we provide all of the back-end technical know how and support for free public Wi-Fi hotspots. We are paid by our partners (BIDs and others) to perform this service, and they do the money raising since that’s what they are good at.