New York Seeks New Approach to Ad-Based Free Wi-Fi

The New York Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications seeks vendor suggestions for a new ad-based free Wi-Fi strategy.

by / June 11, 2009

New York City hopes to revive the free citizen Wi-Fi model based on vendor advertising with a new strategy for making it profitable. Citywide networks based on ad revenue have already failed in San Francisco and Sacramento, Calif., and nearly everywhere else tried. However, city IT leaders hope narrowing the strategy's focus to hotspots in parks, rather than broad, citywide coverage will make the difference. Last month, the New York Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) released a request for information (RFI) seeking vendor ideas and gauging interest in a project focused on specific areas of parks. From 2004 to 2008, a vendor called Wi-Fi Salon attempted to blanket eight parks in the city with Wi-Fi coverage, but according to DoITT, that failed. The city's new idea is to get vendors to offer free ad-based Wi-Fi in specific areas within the parks that interest them.

"Maybe somebody would want to set Wi-Fi up for the zoo. Somebody else might want to set it up at the Shakespeare Theater and somebody else at the tennis center. It's more focused around specific venues," explained Paul Cosgrave, DoITT commissioner.

Cosgrave said he hopes that the high traffic of these areas combined with the smaller amount of hardware necessary to cover them will make providing services profitable. Adding to that potential is the exploding popularity of handheld devices that can use Wi-Fi, said Nicholas Sbordone, DoITT director of external affairs.

"It's no longer just the person with his or her laptop who goes out on lunch to sit in the park and do work. Almost everyone I know has a mobile device of some sort, and if they're in a park or public space, they could simply jump on the Wi-Fi," Sbordone said.

To sweeten the deal, the city would provide space on city-owned structures for the Wi-Fi transmitters and antennas free of charge to the vendors. The city would also publicize the hotspots on bus stop shelters, phone kiosks or banners outside parks.

The deadline for responding to the DoITT's RFI is Friday, June 12. Time will show whether vendors produce a plan that works.

Andy Opsahl

Andy Opsahl is a former writer and features editor for Government Technology magazine.