Google Brings Free Public WiFi to Its New York City Neighborhood

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Andrew Kelly / Reuters

Google's logo is seen at the company's New York City office.

Tech giant Google announced Tuesday that it has begun offering free public WiFi internet access in the southwest Chelsea neighborhood of New York City, close to its mammoth headquarters. According to Google, the new service — which was the product of a public-private effort by the company, city officials, and a local nonprofit development ogranization — will provide free Internet access to hundreds of thousands of people each year, making it the largest such WiFi network in New York City.

Google said that free WiFi is now available — today — outdoors, “roughly between Gansevoort St. and 19 St. from 8th Ave to the West Side Highway, as well as the neighborhood’s public spaces, including the Chelsea Triangle, 14th Street Park, and Gansevoort Plaza.” The WiFi network will not require a password.

“Google is proud to provide free WiFi in the neighborhood we have called home for over six years,” Ben Fried, the company’s chief information officer, said in a statement. “This network will not only be a resource for the 2,000+ residents of the Fulton Houses, it will also serve the 5,000+ student population of Chelsea as well as the hundreds of workers, retail customers and tourists who visit our neighborhood every day.”

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New York officials praised Google’s move, calling it a another step toward the city’s ambitious goal of becoming one of the most important technology hubs in the world.

“New York is determined to become the world’s leading digital city, and universal access to high-speed Internet is one of the core building blocks of that vision,” New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in a statement. “Thanks to Google, free WiFi across this part of Chelsea takes us another step closer to that goal.” At a press conference, Bloomberg said that he’d ultimately like to see similar WiFi service throughout the city.

Since moving into 111 Eighth Avenue, the former Port Authority building and one of the most important “telecom carrier hotels” on the East Coast, Google has been working with local officials to help jumpstart New York’s tech economy. The search giant is currently donating office space to Cornell University and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, which are building a new engineering school on New York’s Roosevelt Island. City officials hope the new school will become a locus of research and entrepreneurship to help boost the local economy, much as Stanford has done in Silicon Valley and M.I.T. in Boston.

Google’s announcement came on the same day as the release of technology scholar Susan Crawford’s important new book, Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly in the New Guilded Age. (And if you think that’s a coincidence, I have a bridge to sell you. Susan Crawford is a key member of Mayor Bloomberg’s Council on Technology and Innovation.)

In her book, Crawford argues that because U.S. policy makers have allowed a small number of highly profitable corporate giants to dominate the broadband market, Americans have fewer choices for Internet service than millions of other people in developed countries. According to Crawford, broadband Internet access has become an absolutely essential utility for Americans in their education, careers, and personal lives.

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Sen. Charles Schumer, the New York Democrat, echoed that sentiment. “Each day access to the Internet becomes more and more important to finding a good job or getting a good education, and this neighborhood-wide wireless network will provide that resource to hundreds of thousands,” Schumer said. “This cutting edge wireless network will help to cement New York’s reputation as a leader in technological development, will help the city continue to attract business and grow our booming Silicon Alley, and will take us one step closer to our goal of becoming the most well connected city in America.”

Of course, Google’s motives with the new Chelsea WiFi network are not completely altruistic. Some might even call this a PR stunt. After all, the new WiFi network will only cost $115,000 to build and $45,000 a year to maintain; Google will cover two-thirds of the costs, while nonprofit group Chelsea Improvement Co. will pick up the rest.

Google made $25 billion in profit last year, on $48 billion in revenue, so the PR value of this move is no doubt more valuable to Google than the financial cost. On the other hand, Google benefits when more people use broadband Internet, at faster speeds, because the more Google searches get executed, the more money Google makes.

Google recently launched a plan to provide high-speed fiber-optic Internet access in the Kansas City metropolitan area. The search giant also offers free WiFi in its home city of Mountain View, Calif.

New York City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn touted the deal as an example of the consumer benefits that can be delivered when private companies work together with local municipalities.

“This public-private partnership benefits the local community while further cementing Google’s role as an important contributor to the future development of the area as a hub for the city’s technology industry,” said Quinn, who is a leading contender to succeed Bloomberg as mayor of New York City.