Wi-Fi Planet: Wireless for NYC has Class

from Eric Griffith for Wi-Fi Planet:

Professor John McMullen and his Monroe College Computer Information Systems students have installed wireless Internet access in a Harlem coffee shop, a Brooklyn day care center, and in Bronx restaurants. McMullen teaches his students everything from Wi-Fi to WiMax to cellular connections and potential tech of the future, and then provides them with hands-on experience.

Even as big vendors like Nokia step in to sponsor park hotspots, a small college class continues to do its part in spreading Wi-Fi while giving students some marketable skills.

Unlike a lot of big cities like San Francisco and Philadelphia, New York City is taking a measured approach to installing Wi-Fi. Reports this week in Newsday and the New York Times re-confirmed plans to install public use wireless LANs limited to city parks. Ten parks will go live by the end of the summer including areas of Central Park installed and run for the NYC Parks Department by Wi- Fi Salon with the help of Nokia (as sponsor).

Certainly the future of installing wireless services, whether Wi- Fi, WiMax, or something we don’t even know about yet, seems bright. Those future deployments may happen courtesy of people who are today students in classes like Monroe College’s Wireless Technology course. Students who aren’t afraid of a little hard work.

John McMullen is a professor in the school’s Computer Information Systems (CIS) department; he teaches the wireless technology class in question. He decided that the theory required by the New York State Regents wasn’t enough. His upper-level class is actively working to install Wi-Fi hotspots. The goal is to put service into areas not well served with broadband right now. Recently his class helped put in access points in Madison Square Park, a coffee shop in Harlem, Subway restaurants in the Bronx, and even a daycare center in Brooklyn.

Most of these deployments are done working with the community group NYCWireless . Students aren’t just installing hardware wherever they think is appropriate. They also have to sell the venue owners on whether it’s worthwhile.

“Student’s cold call and have to explain things,” says McMullen. “If it’s a restaurant or coffee shop, they’d spell out how the point would be to lure customers in. Immediate concern for many is how you get them out. You can have a policy for restricted access for half and hour, say. The point is, students must convince them of the benefit.”

His students helped NYCWireless and Solar One (the city’s first “Green Energy, Arts, and Education Center” with goal of inspiring environmentally friendly citizens) with the deployment of a solar- powered hotspot in Stuyvesant Cove Park on the East River. It opened for use in March this year.

McMullen says the work they do “going out and selling and getting your hands dirty” prepares students for graduate school, but maybe even more so for real-world work. He says the installation at Coogan’s Restaurant near NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center was typical, in that they had to go from the basement, drill holes, come up through a column with Ethernet wire, mount the router in a very high spot, etc. “It’s something they often don’t get to do in college.”

Even if putting in wireless routers is fun, it’s not everything, as the course theory does cover the gamut from Wi-Fi to WiMax to cellular connections and potential tech of the future. The class is interspersed with expert speakers, such as a PhD. researcher from Columbia University who happens to be a NYCWireless board member that can tell students about the culturally different ways wireless is used between the United States and Japan, for instance. Other speakers might cover using open source firmware on routers.

“Hopefully it’ll cause students to push on,” says McMullen, who’s obviously concerned about the future employability of his students in a tight job market. “They need a skill they can market, but they must constantly look at what’s next, what will change. Everything is standards. As we go to 802.11, 80.15, 802.16, it’s all spelled out. But they need something they can sell today.”

McMullen says after so many months and years of the city not having a wireless plan, that NYCWireless is “they only game in town that works,” but that may soon change if Wi-Fi Salon gets its act together. It has had a contract with the city since late 2004 to deploy park hotspots but only delivered on one, in Battery Park. The NYTimes says 18 locations in 10 city parks will be lit up by August. Parks will include Battery, Central, Riverside (plus Union and Washington Squares) in Manhattan, and others in the Queens and the Bronx. Eight alone will be in Central Park it’s not a full park coverage network. The city is no longer looking to make money off any of these ventures as it did at first.

Private companies like Telkonet think they can deliver commercial service at least in Manhattan via building-based hotzones.