Jul 30 2014

Free Wi-Fi Is Coming to a City Near You

Boston, New York and San Jose are out to prove that free Internet access is not only a plus for residents but also a good business move.

In Boston, it’s called Wicked Free Wi-Fi. In San Jose, they prefer Wickedly Fast Wi-Fi.

The names may vary, but Boston and San Jose are among a growing number of cities that are providing free Internet access to residents and visitors in their core downtown areas and exploring ways to extend those services to surrounding neighborhoods.

In April, Boston Mayor Martin Walsh announced plans to connect Boston’s 20 commercial districts with outdoor hotspots, The Boston Globe reported. The mayor is hopeful that Wi-Fi expansion will drive economic development and develop municipal free Internet access to underserved areas.

New York City is moving forward with an initiative that uses existing pay phone infrastructure to provide free, public Wi-Fi. Google was one of 60 companies that met with the city’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications in May “to discuss a project to replace or supplement as many as 10,000 pay phones around the city,” PCWorld reported last week after the attendees list was made public.

The department’s website says that the “Wi-Fi Hotspot Project has no additional cost to the city or the public.” That’s because pay phone franchisees will absorb the full cost for equipment and installation, management, monitoring and customer service, it states.

Adding the Internet hotspots won’t put an end to phone services or to free 911 and 311 calls via pay phones. In fact, new services could be offered in the future, including cellphone charging stations, the city said after releasing its request for proposals in May. City officials expect to sign a contract by the end of the year and project the initiative will produce $17.5 million in annual revenue for New York City through June 2026.

The project, started in 2012, could establish one of the largest free Wi-Fi networks in the country.

Free Wi-Fi Is Good for Business

In San Jose, city officials have extended the free Wi-Fi network to include Mineta San Jose International Airport and San Jose McEnery Convention Center.

The Wickedly Fast Wi-Fi Network project initially cost San Jose $94,000 plus $22,000 in ongoing costs, according to the city, which touts itself as one of the first large cities to offer free, wireless Internet access in downtown areas. It isn’t clear whether those costs include the recent Wi-Fi expansion.

“These two facilities are key drivers of economic activity, and equipping them with the most advanced wireless technologies available will greatly aid their ongoing efforts to attract new business,” Mayor Chuck Reed announced in June.

Vijay Sammeta, the city’s CIO, understands that fast and reliable Wi-Fi isn’t just a perk, it’s an expectation.

“People in and traveling to Silicon Valley are among the most technically sophisticated in the world, with an expectation for super fast and highly reliable Wi-Fi,” Sammeta said. “With the infrastructure changes we’ve made at the airport, customers are experiencing dramatically faster speeds. On the new Ruckus Smart Wi-Fi system, we’ve seen top download speeds of 60Mbps compared with 14Mbps on our previous Wi-Fi system. For most people, that’s better than what they have at home.”

Nicole Blake Johnson