By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — Riverbank State Park in Harlem will be the first New York State park to offer free Wi-Fi in an effort to help close the digital divide.
Advocates have long complained about the "digital divide," or the gap between those with Internet access and those without. Typically, minorities and the elderly are less likely to have access to the Internet, either because of cost or because their buildings aren't wired for it, according to Bruce Lincoln, entrepreneur in residence at Columbia Engineering School.
Everyone knows the gap exists, said Lincoln, who was approached to create the wireless hotspot in Riverbank State Park."The issue is how do you solve the problem and make it affordable for more people."
The effort started out as part of a program to bring Wi-Fi access to one building at the park to facilitate a technology-themed event for seniors, said Lincoln. When the state's Office of Parks couldn't find a technology partner to install wireless Internet for the building, they turned to Columbia University and found Lincoln.
He said it would be just as hard to install Wi-Fi at one building in Riverbank State Park as it would be to wire the entire 28-acre green space, which is located atop a sewage treatment facility. So Columbia teamed up with other groups looking to bridge the digital divide to make it happen.
"The world is changing, the way people spend leisure time is changing and technology is part of that," said Dan Keefe, a spokesman for the state Office of Parks. "It's something we would like to bring to other parks."
The Parks Department said they benefit from sponsoring a Wi-Fi hotspot in the park because it helps those with mobile devices to access information about the park, located along the Hudson River from West 137th Street to West 145th Street. Seniors will also be benefit because they can access the Internet to keep in touch with family or research medical issues. The access will have a special interface and will also block inappropriate sites to protect children, Lincoln said.
"It's now a simple idea that wireless broadband is not a luxury it is a necessity," said Lincoln. "There are those who can't afford the Internet so you need affordable solutions."
The Wi-Fi is being maintained through a public-private partnership and will not cost the state any money, said Keefe.
Although the free Wi-Fi won't have a negative impact on the state budget, new, unreleased data from the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project shows it looks likely to have a positive impact on the digital divide.
According to a September 2010 survey, the digital divide begins to close when the use of mobile Internet devices enters the equation, said Susannah Fox, associate director of the center.
The percentage of African-Americans and Latinos who go online when they have access to a wireless connection is much higher than white Internet users, the study found. Fifty-nine percent of blacks and 62 percent of Latinos go online using WiFi, as opposed to 55 percent of whites. The number of Blacks and Latinos who go online without a wireless connection is half of that of whites, according to the survey.
"The gap is still there in terms of traditional Internet access," Fox said, "but when we add in a wireless connection that gap tends to close."