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Critics Question Deal For 'Limited Free' Wi-Fi in City Parks

By Patrick Wall | July 17, 2013 10:25am
 More than 30 public parks will now offer visitors a half hour of free Wi-Fi access per month as part of a deal between the city, Cablevision and Time Warner Cable.
New Wi-Fi Hotspots Go Online in City Parks
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FORDHAM — More than 30 public parks will now offer visitors a half hour of free Wi-Fi access per month as part of a deal between the city, Cablevision and Time Warner Cable.

The free 30 minutes are divided into three 10-minute intervals over 30 days. Users who want to spend more time online in those parks must pay 99 cents per day.

The two cable companies’ broadband customers and some other Internet service subscribers, meanwhile, get unlimited access to the parks’ wireless service.

The 32 parks across the five boroughs with the new Wi-Fi hot spots — which the Parks Department calls "limited free" — include St. Mary's Park in The Bronx, Prospect Park in Brooklyn, Riverside Park in Manhattan, Kissena Park in Queens and Tappen Park in Staten Island. The full list is online.

While officials touted the deal Tuesday as a public-private partnership that will help more citizens get online at no cost to the city, some critics said it created a two-tiered system in public spaces while doing little to narrow the digital divide.

“It does have a little tinge of two classes of citizens: those who have a cable account and those who don’t,” said City Councilwoman Gale Brewer, who has criticized the deal since it was finalized in 2011. “And I think that’s wrong in a public park.”

She and others also questioned how the companies would use the personal information that non-customers are asked to submit before logging in to the networks.

“What kind of privacy and security there is, I don’t know,” Brewer said. “I personally would not do it.”

As part of the 10-year franchise agreement with the city, the companies agreed to spend $10 million to set up and operate the Wi-Fi hot spots, in addition to several other requirements, in exchange for the right to provide cable television in the city.

Last fiscal year, the companies brought in more than $2 billion just in city cable-television revenues, city officials said.

The city, in turn, received a franchise fee of 5 percent of those revenues — the highest rate allowed by federal law — or about $106 million.

Some critics said the city could have extracted far more from the companies in exchange for access to such a lucrative market.

“That market is worth orders of magnitude more to the cable companies than what they agreed to provide to the city,” said Dana Spiegel, executive director of NYCwireless, which advocates for free wireless access in parks and other public places.

Spiegel added that the time limits and charges for non-cable customers mean that low-income residents who cannot afford home Internet are unlikely to find the park Wi-Fi service a viable option for online activity that takes more than a few minutes.

He noted that his organization, many local business groups, park conservancies and companies such as Google and AT&T offer free Wi-Fi in many city parks and public spaces without any time restrictions.

“Thirty minutes for a month is ridiculous,” Spiegel said.

City officials noted that the Wi-Fi hot spots are in addition to a package of benefits that the cable companies agreed to fund in the franchise deal — from neighborhood computer labs to public-access channels to library Internet service — worth some $60 million.

Also, a dozen more parks may eventually be added to the 32 parks with the new Wi-Fi service, they added.

“If there is anybody else who would like to provide the same service for nothing, we are happy to have others come in,” said Rahul Merchant, commissioner of the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, the agency that struck the deal.

The city referred questions about park Wi-Fi users’ privacy to the cable companies. Company representatives did not immediately respond to those concerns.

Several visitors to St. James Park Tuesday said they welcomed the new Wi-Fi hot spot, though they raised concerns about the cost and privacy.

“I think it’s a good idea. I’d like to lay out and chill with my tablet,” said Janet Gonzalez, 25, adding that 99 cents for a day pass seemed reasonable.

But Beth Yancie, 26, said the service should be totally free and should not ask for users’ personal information.

“It's crazy that they charge and it's crazy that they ask for that information,” she said.

With reporting by Noelani Montero.