WiFi Hotspots in New York: A Guide to the Ones That Actually Work

By DNAinfo Staff on June 10, 2011 7:38am  | Updated on June 10, 2011 7:15pm

By Jill Colvin and Julie Shapiro

DNAinfo Reporter/Producers

MIDTOWN — From Bowling Green to Times Square, parks across Manhattan have been touting free wireless Internet for years.

But do they actually deliver?

As the city announced the rollout of a new initiative to bring WiFi to a host of new parks Thursday, DNAinfo decided to find out.

As it turns out, performance varies greatly across the borough. Some spots that many New Yorkers dismiss, such as the heart of Times Square, perform surprisingly well, while others, including Wall & Whitehall plazas, offer no signals to be found.

Bryant Park

It won't come as a surprise to anyone who's noticed the laptop legions who flock here for lunch that Bryant Park offers some of the best free service in the borough, courtesy of the Bryant Park Corporation.

The park's shaded tables and chairs also provide a scenic alternative that draws students who would otherwise be cooped up in the public library next door.

"It's just a nice environment to be in," said Teresa Wong, 24, who has been coming to the park three to five times a week as she studies for her nursing exams.

Igor Voznesensky, 21, agreed that working in the park beats Starbucks any day.

"I'm outside so I obviously prefer to be here," he said.

But while DNAinfo had a lightning-fast connection in the morning just after 9 a.m., others said service can be slow at peak times when many people are online.

"It's spotty in general, but it's free so I can't complain," Voznesensky said.

Times Square

When it comes to WiFi in Times Square, it's all about location.

The Times Square Alliance has made a big deal of its connection, inviting users to "pull up a chair at a Broadway Plaza café table, or take a seat on Duffy Square’s iconic red glass steps, and access your email, read the review of a Broadway show browse local restaurant menus, or simply see who's playing at Carolines tonight."

Truth be told, we were skeptical when we pulled out our laptop on those ruby red steps to give the network a try. But we were able to log onto the network on our first try, and Internet speeds were fast enough to load web pages and browse.

Elsewhere in the plaza, the service was slower. Parked at a table on the Broadway plaza between West 41st and West 42nd streets, it took three attempts to finally access the Internet, and when we did, the connection was painfully slow.

Alliance spokeswoman Lori Raimondo said that because of the nature of the space, signal strength vary across the square.

"Times Square is a very complicated place to wire with WiFi because there are so many signals," said Raimondo, who advised users hoping to log on to head to the steps and the north side of the plaza, where the signal's stronger than the south.

She also said that while usage fluctuates depending on the weather and time of year, the network is logged onto an average of at least 2,000 times a day.

Madison Square Park

According to the park conservancy, WiFi is available free of charge through NYCwireless in the park.

DNAinfo tried repeatedly to log on, with no luck, although we eventually found an AT&T network that advertised free service with a username and password.

The absences of a more obvious option has left many with the impression that the park is not wired, including Bill Finn, 60, who works in the neighborhood, and was working on his laptop offline Thursday.

"It would be great if we had it," said Finn, who loves to work outside.

Union Square

Union Square is another unexpected spot for a reliable high-speed connection, courtesy of the Union Square Partnership.

DNAinfo consistently picked up five bars at the hot spot, which the partnership boasts is "one of the most robust" in the country.

"I think it's terrific," said Judy Rosenberg, visiting from Florida, who was thrilled to discover she could log on via her iPad, especially after learning that her Midtown hotel charges for Internet use in guests' rooms.

Chelsea Market

The West side of Manhattan can be a tough place to find an Iinternet cafe, but the Chelsea Market offers free access during business hours.

Our reporter said the connection was slow at times, but worked well enough to email and browse.

Riverbank State Park

In January, officials announced that Riverbank State Park in Harlem would be the first New York State park to offer free Wi-Fi in an effort to help close the digital divide.

DNAinfo visited the park Thursday and, at first, could not pick up a public signal. Deeper in the park, however, we were able to connect to SmartNet NYC from the Digital Divide Partnership.

Downtown

The Downtown Alliance said it recently upgraded its connections at sites across Downtown, including Bowling Green, the South Street Seaport and City Hall Park.

The Alliance said in a statement that they recently ran a diagnostic and that all their hotspots are working fine.

But DNAinfo found no alliance network available at Bowling Green or the Wall & Whitehall plaza.

At Peter Minuit Plaza in front of the State Island Ferry, we were able to connect to the Downtown Alliance network, but the connection was so weak that web pages wouldn't load.

We had better luck at City Hall Park, where the connection was still slow, but usable for simple browsing.

The alliance said its network is now averaging over 400 connections a day, and is expecting more than 150,000 connections this year.

Under the city's new agreement with AT&T, WiFi is now available in Battery Park and Thomas Jefferson Park in East Harlem, and will soon be expanded into sections of Central Park, as well as the High Line, Tompkins Square Park, Marcus Garvey Park and Holcombe Rucker Park uptown.

With reporting from Jeff Mays and Meredith Hoffman.

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