NYC begins rolling out free public Wi-Fi. Will others follow suit?

The city plans to provide up to 10,000 hotspots over the next decade, replacing phonebooths with hi-tech kiosks. The first hubs were installed this week. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/CSM staff/File
A woman works on her computer at a sidewalk cafe on a spring day on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, on May 6, 2015. New York is beginning a decade-long project aimed at offering free Wi-Fi access throughout the city.

The first of 10,000 free public Wi-Fi kiosks was installed in New York City on Monday, the start of a decade-long project reflecting many leaders' growing conviction that the Internet is a fundamental right.

LinkNYC installed one of the first hubs near the corner of 3rd Avenue and 15th Street, according to Gothamist, although its wireless was still in testing. Once up and running, the sleek kiosks — thin charging centers with two 55-inch touchscreens — promise to deliver 2.0 signal strength for a 150-foot radius, at minimum, forming the largest, fastest municipal network in the world. 

The hubs will also provide USB chargers, touchscreen Internet access, free phone calls anywhere in the US, public service announcements — and lots of ads. According to the city's Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications, $500 million in ad revenue should come in within 12 years. New York is promoting the project as "no cost to taxpayers."

The first 500 hubs will be up within 6 months, with 4,500 within 4 years, and scattered throughout New York's five boroughs. The city has denied reports that advertisers' anticipated lower interest in poorer neighborhoods would hurt Internet speed. 

While many New Yorkers were excited they'd no longer have to buy a cup of coffee to access Wi-Fi, others voiced concern over public networks' security

"There’s always a chance that someone may compromise the system that runs the wireless network or just somebody sets up a wireless network and fools you into connecting with it," Kaspersky Lab senior security researcher Patrick Nielsen told Gothamist. 

But city officials, who point out that the system will use encryption, say that's a glass-half-empty attitude towards a major urban innovation that will also help keep the public informed about things like transportation schedules and public notifications.

One major investor in Intersection, a merger of the two companies delivering LinkNYC, is Google's Sidewalk Labs. CEO Dan Doctoroff, who previously worked for former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, believes the program is a step forward for not just virtual connectivity, but "civic engagement." 

"One of the great things about New York is that when people see things happening in New York, they tend to focus on it and often emulate it," he told Fast Company. 

Mayor Bill De Blasio has made improved Internet access a priority, introducing free broadband in several of the city's poorest public housing developments and investing $70 million in a decade-long effort to make access more affordable. The administration has cited studies from the Center for Economic Opportunity which found that more than one third of households under the poverty line do not have Internet access at home. 

"It's no secret I consider income inequality the greatest challenge of our time. And whether you're my age or my teenage son Dante's, it's clear: the Internet has become fundamental to solving it," the Mayor wrote in a February op-ed, noting its pivotal role in education, job-seeking, and business. "Like electricity in the 1800s, the Internet is now an essential building block of economic opportunity." 

At the global level, however, not everyone is thrilled with increasing momentum to recognize the Internet as a human right.

Vinton G. Cerf, a prize-winning Internet pioneer who now serves as Google's "Chief Internet Evangelist," has argued that enshrining Internet access confuses means for ends. "Technology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself," he wrote in The New York Times, contending that the Internet was not "among the things we as humans need in order to lead healthy, meaningful lives, like freedom from torture or freedom of conscience," his criteria for "human rights."

Federal Communications Commission member Michael O'Rielly has also protested framing the Internet as a basic right, calling the idea "ludicrous." "It is important to note that Internet access is not a necessity in the day-to-day lives of Americans," he said at an industry talk in June. 

Many countries say it is a basic right, however, and the United Nations has moved towards greater protections for Internet users, especially after seeing its pivotal role in protest movements around the world, such as Arab Spring.

In 2011, a UN report said that disconnecting people from service was a violation of human rights, and some universal Internet-advocates have interpreted Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as further support for their position:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to … seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

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