Yesterday, NYCwireless presented the following testimony to the NY City Council Committees on Parks and Recreation and Technology:
Testimony to the New York City Council Committees on Parks and Recreation and Technology
Members and Staff of the New York City Council, I would like to thank you for inviting me here today to provide my testimony and provide what I hope is useful guidance on the issue of Public Space Wi-Fi Hotspots and the Parks Wi-Fi Deployment plan developed by DoITT in the course of negotiating NYC cable franchise agreements.
First, a brief introduction (since we as an organization have testified a number of times for the NY City Council and many know us): NYCwireless is a non-profit whose mission is to bring free Wi-Fi Internet access to New York City parks, public spaces, and other public gathering places, as well as under-served places like affordable housing residences. We have been doing this work since 2000. We were the organization that brought free Wi-Fi to New York City, starting with a locally supported hotspot in Tomkins Square Park in 2001, the world-recognized Bryant Park hotspot in 2003, and the Downtown Alliance’s groundbreaking network of hotspots in 2005. We have been doing this work longer than any other organization and have seen more success than anyone else in New York City in our efforts. We continue to create new hotspots around New York City, and innovate the technology that enables the creation of these hotspots that bring significant recognition to us and New York.
We are a special type of IT organization: we provide services and support for planning, installing, and maintaining a hotspot or hotzone, but we rely on our partners to supply funding and local outreach and marketing, as well as support for accessing local infrastructure for places to install hotspot equipment. Working with us, a local organization can retain ownership and responsibility for a hotspot, but can take advantage of our experience and best practices, and can depend upon our technical and procedural expertise to create a successful hotspot quickly and cheaply. We are also a local small business that is independently funded by our work, and represent exactly the sort of local organization the City should be supporting in these hard economic times.
We have long been a supporter of the intent of the Parks Department, and more recently DoITT, to bring more free Wi-Fi hotspots to city parks, but for the benefit of the citizens of this city, we have also been outspoken critics of the policies and practices of the Parks Department and DoITT in their effort. I have brought copies of some blog articles and past testimony with me today, so I won’t detail the many issues we have spoken about in the past, but concentrate on the specific issues at hand today.
Related NYCwireless Filings and Blog Posts
Park Hotspot Best Practices
We have discovered, in over a decade of work, that successful and sustainable hotspots require a four things:
- A motivated local organization that sees the creation of a hotspot or hotzone as a valuable economic and cultural development for its community,
- Promotion and marketing to inform local communities of the hotspot’s existence and value,
- Well executed and maintained hardware and network installation, and
- Appropriate management systems and software to protect the users of the hotspots and the organizations that build them
NYCwireless provides components (3) and (4), while our partner organizations (BIDs, “friends of” organizations, local businesses and developers, etc.) provide components (1) and (1).
Indeed, we have found that (1) may in fact be the most important component of a successful and sustainable hotspot; That all currently operating hotspots are projects of local BIDs and other organizations, while the City’s Park hotspots saw only a 3-year life and are now no longer operating should be proof enough of this. An inability of the City Parks Department and DoITT to recognizing these facts has long been a deficiency of these organization’s efforts.
I’m not going to speak today about the value of such hotspots to a local community, as this fact has been established and documented extensively in prior NYCwireless testimony to the City Council and to the NYC Broadband Advisory Committee, some of which I have brought with me should the Council wish to review. I am also not going to speak today about what we believe is the appropriate and sustainable model for NYC to support the creation of many more public space Free Wi-Fi Hotspots. This model is clearly documented in NYCwireless’ RFI response to DoITT’s “City Wireless Internet Access for New York City Parks and Other Open Spaces,” copies of which I have also brought with me for your review.
How Hotspots Work
At this point, it is useful to briefly describe how public hotspots work, and the hardware and software that comprise them.
First, in terms of process and definition: a “public hotspot” is any multi-user Wi-Fi network whose purpose is to legitimately invite passers-by or visitors to connect in order to gain access (likely after some authentication process) to the internet. Starbucks’ Wi-Fi networks in their stores (operated by AT&T Wireless) are public hotspots, Boingo (a company) Wi-Fi networks in airport terminals and hotels are hotspots, and NYCwireless Wi-Fi in Parks are hotspots. Business networks, though they may utilize Wi-Fi technology, are not hotspots, nor are personal home networks that are unprotected by security measures and encryption.
“Free public hotspots” are any “public hotspots” that are further made available to all users at no cost to that user for any period of time. Recently, Starbucks’ hotspots were made into Free public hotspots, allowing store visitors to connect to the internet for free for unlimited amounts of time. NYCwireless Hotspots, DTA hotspots, and the hotspot at Bryant Park are “Free public hotspots” since a visitor to any of our park networks never pays any money for any period of usage. Wi-Fi service on Virgin America and other airlines is not a Free public hotspot since AirCell (the company that operates the networks) requires a payment of $10-$13 per flight for usage. The proposed DoITT franchise agreement park hotspots are also not Free public hotspot in any sense since they require payment of a daily fee for usage beyond three 10 minute sessions per month (more on this later).
To use a hotspot, a user must select the network name in their computer’s Wi-Fi network selection panel. In the case of NYCwireless hotspots, the user selects the network named “www.nycwireless.net”. Once connected to the hotspot, the user must browse to any web page in order to bring up the login screen. The login screen (also known as the hotspot splash page or hotspot home page) is customized for each hotspot, and contains information about the hotspot creator (in NYCwireless’ case the BID or other local organization partner) and any sponsor logos and messages. A user can create a new account, read the Acceptable Usage Policy, or just log into the hotspot with their email address and password. Once logged in, the user is then redirected to another customized hotspot page with more information about the hotspot. At this point, the user is logged into the hotspot, and can access the internet as he or she sees fit. All hotspots work in exactly the same way.
NYCwireless uses server-based software to operate and maintain all of its hotspots. This software handles user login, the presentation of all customized hotspot home pages, and captures all usage information, including real-time information about who is logged in, how much bandwidth each user is using, and how many visitors each hotspot receives.
NYCwireless Hotspot Network Usage Statistics
The NYCwireless network of hotspots has over 40,000 registered users, over 15,000 of which have logged in over the past year. The most active months of the year are in the summer (understandably, since we mostly operate outdoor hotspots), however winter usage is about 40% of the summer peak, thus showing that, except for the most inclement weather, free public hotspots are popular year round.
Our most active hotspots are Madison Square Park (11,143 visitors in 2010), Jackson Square Park (3,041 visitors in 2010), Wagner Park (2,191 visitors in 2010) and Brooklyn Bridge Park (983 visitors in 2010). They visit at all hours of the day with a peak in the early afternoon, though late evenings see about 50% of the usage as during the day, and early morning about 20% of early afternoon peak.
Compare this to our affordable housing hotspot network, built with partner Community Access. The hotspots in 9 Community Access managed buildings saw almost 40,000 visits over the past couple of years and have over 7,000 registered users (some of these are duplicates that are in use by the same person). These hotspots, which are available throughout the buildings, get 24/7/365 use, and are now peaking at over 1,700 connections per month. These networks also saw about 17TB worth of information transferred over the past year, which shows enormous usage.
DoITT’s Cable Franchise Agreements
I do wish to make a few brief comments about the current DoITT plan to use cable franchise agreements to bring “Wi-Fi” to City Parks. These comments are discussed more extensively in our blog, and I have brought copies of a few appropriate articles with me as well.
On a positive note, DoITT’s attempt to use the negotiation of cable franchise agreements to do something beneficial for park Wi-Fi is laudable. I was very happy to see that they are at least paying a little attention to the extensively researched and assembled (though unreleased) Diamond Consulting “Broadband Needs Assessment Study.”
However, the positive aspects of DoITT’s plan end there.
First, the plan does not establish any form of “Free Public Wi-Fi”, an amenity of New York City parks since NYCwireless began our work, and one replicated by the Parks Department and many other organizations around the City. Free Public Wi-Fi Hotspots were a very significant recommendation of the Diamond Consulting “Broadband Needs Assessment Study,” and the “Free” part of these public hotspots are exactly the part of these amenities that make them so valuable and essential for local residents.
Make no mistake: DoITT’s plan establishes a $1 per day fee for internet service in parks. There may be a few free 10-minute blocks per month, and there may be ways to hide the $1 per day charge in a resident’s cable service internet bill, but with DoITT’s plan, NYC won’t have Free Wi-Fi. We’ll have $1 per day Wi-Fi, delivered to public spaces that are maintained by our tax dollars, paid to a couple of huge private corporations.
In fact, Cablevision and Time Warner Cable stand to make tens of millions of dollars per year providing this service. Central Park gets about 25m visitors per year, and if we ignore all other parks, and figure that fewer than half of those visitors buy one day of internet service per year, Time Warner Cable and Cablevision get paid $0.99 x 10 million visitors = $10,000,000.
Second, the industry standard for gaining access to such types of subscription service as are contemplated by DoITT and the cable companies requires that a prospective user of a fee-based Parks Hotspot will need to create an account and enter their billing information. This requires the submission of identity, address, and credit card information into a web form prior to gaining access to the hotspot. Essentially, by promoting this solution, DoITT is pushing NYC citizens and visitors to hand over deeply personal and secure information to a private organization over which neither the user nor DoITT has any control.
Contrast this to the way that NYCwireless offers free Wi-Fi to citizens: we do require registration of a user account so that we can track agreement to our Acceptable Usage Policy. However we require only a valid email address. No billing address, no credit card, no other identity information.
Personally, I am fearful of handing over such information to such private organizations, though I have in the past. But I am more fearful for the harm that will be done to those that depend more significantly upon Park Hotspots. How many city residents don’t have a credit card? How many children in playgrounds who couldn’t get a credit card even if they wanted to? Adults? How many city residents live in neighborhoods that are otherwise safe, but in which they would prefer not pulling out their wallet and a credit card just to get what should be Free Internet Access? How many city residents depend upon Free Wi-Fi because they live below the poverty line, and because they can’t afford or don’t want cable internet, cannot afford the $5 it would cost them to get internet access in a city park during the week?
Lastly, because of DoITT’s “whole package solution”, most NYC residents and visitors won’t see any Wi-Fi, for free or for fee, for years, since local organizations that would otherwise have sponsored the creation of a Free Public Wi-Fi Hotspot say “oh, well, the city is going to do this someday, so we won’t bother doing this now for our community.” If past experience is any predictor of future performance, it will be years before the first Paid Wi-Fi Hotspot is opened, and many more before many others are opened, if at all. Meanwhile, DoITT’s actions will have stopped in its tracks any plans for more hotspots that local organizations may be contemplating.
An Alternative Plan
For all these problems with DoITT’s plans, and these are just a few of the big ones, there does seem to be a reformulation of the cable franchise plan that would address the issues, and lead us to a more sustainable future with many more Free Public Wi-Fi Hotspots in NYC parks and public spaces.
We have presented in past testimony and our DoITT RFI response that there are three ways that that the City can support and foster the creation of more Free Wi-Fi Hotspots:
- Provide or coordinate a source of funding that local organizations like BIDs can draw from to create Hotspots
- Ensure that ISPs provide internet access services (at a competitive price) to which Hotspots can connect
- Offer free access to park infrastructure, including buildings, electrical connections, and lamp posts for the installation of hotspot hardware
All three of these means of support can be accommodated through small adjustments to DoITT’s cable franchise agreements.
The cable franchise agreement establish a $10 million funding resource (provided in part via in-kind services) that the cable franchisees will spend to create hotspots in a few dozen parks. Instead, this funding resource should be allocated to the use of local organizations who can apply for funding (it costs about $10,000-$15,000 over 3 years to establish a hotspot in a medium sized park). The local organizations, such as BIDs, can use those funds to hire outside contractors, including, but not exclusively, NYCwireless, to build, operate, and maintain park and public space hotspots.
The cable franchise agreement implicitly establishes the allocation of internet access service to any park where a hotspot is created by a cable company. Instead, the internet access service that would have been used by a cable company’s own hotspot should be made available for free (or at least at cost) for any local organization to use in any park or public space to provide internet access to a created hotspot.
The cable franchise agreement also implicitly establishes the availability of parks-based building and lamp-post infrastructure that would be used to house hotspot hardware for the cable companies. Instead, such building and lamp post infrastructure, plus any available electrical infrastructure (hotspots generally need the equivalent of 1-2 100 Watt light bulbs of power) should be made available to any local organization to use to house equipment for a hotspot.
We are hopeful that the NY City Council can establish guidelines and direction for both the Parks Department and DoITT in bringing more Free Wi-Fi Hotspots to New York City, for the benefit of residents and visitors.