Linux Makes Wi-Fi Happen in New York City

Community groups, startup companies and even the phone company are using Linux to make New York City into one big happy wireless network hot spot. How is your town doing?
Building a New Infrastructure, One Pebble at a Time

I met with Terry Schmidt at Emenity's offices near Wall Street, where he briefed me on the challenges of deploying public Wi-Fi in New York's peculiar urban settings. The first big project for both NYCwireless and Emenity was Bryant Park, which shares a midtown block with the New York's Public Library. Terry explains:

We overbuilt that one with two omni antennas, one sector antenna and two point-to-point links within the park itself. But it was a big success, so it became clear that there was a need for free wireless networks. A volunteer organization like NYCwireless can't easily do service level agreements and stuff like that, so that's what we provide with Emenity.

Terry sees Emenity as a midway organization between the purely voluntary and the purely self-reliant. Bryant Park, for example, originally was built by NYCwireless, then maintained by Emenity and now is run entirely in-house by the park itself.

Emenity's biggest customer is the Downtown Alliance, a business improvement district (BID) organized to “create and promote a safe, clean, live-work, totally wired community”. BIDs throughout the city are supported by a small additional local sales tax. Improvements to Bryant Park—which are nothing less than spectacular, considering the no-mans-land it used to be—are examples of a BID at work. Because the alliance serves landowners, it also can approach them with requests to use their roofs or windows for wireless antennas aimed down at public spaces.

A Rooftop Antenna Serves City Hall Park

Location, Location, Location

At City Hall Park, the rooftop across the street at J&R Music and Computer World proved to be the ideal access point location. A square white sector antenna with a beam width of about 40°, angles down at the park and provides a signal footprint that serves the park itself and little else. At the far edge of the park by City Hall it fades away. A fairly precise footprint also graciously yields to other access points at the local Starbucks, City Hall, the Woolworth Building and elsewhere in the neighborhood.

Terry Schmidt says NYCwireless encourages local citizens operating free access points to label them “NYCwireless” and register with NYCwireless so they appear on the organization's node list. End user licensing runs the gamut from locked-down to free. Time-Warner, for example, aggressively denies users the right to share bandwidth. At the other extreme, Verizon sells Wi-Fi access points to its DSL customers.

The black bump on this pay phone is a Wi-Fi antenna.

Verizon Gets It

Verizon, which has thousands of phone booths on the streets of New York, has seen the same writing on the own wall, and come up with a brilliant plan: turn phone booths into access points. The first 150 were fired up on May 13, and the company has plans to add the service to 500 or more throughout the city and beyond.

At the time of this writing, the service is available and free, to Verizon business and residential DSL customers only. But there's nothing in the deployment that prevents the company from opening up to other customers or from opening up completely—it was designed that way. In fact, it was designed to be as easily deployable and modifiable as possible, which is why the company made use of Linux and open-source tools. Sean Byrnes, an architect with Verizon, explained it this way:

What Linux let us do was deploy extremely quickly. So, rather than setting up large servers in one of our data centers, we were able to create Linux clusters and build initial versions that supported the hot spot service extremely quickly, using a wide variety of open-source software—much more quickly than if we had been waiting for licenses, etc. We couldn't have moved it into the data center if Linux didn't allow us to develop with platform independence and with open-source technologies that are implemented across multiple operating systems. We're working to have Linux qualified for the data centers, but it isn't there yet.

When I said it sounded to me like Verizon was an example of a company that found it easier to roll their own solutions than depend on vendors for help, Sean Byrnes replied, “That would be an understatement, actually.” He explained:

If you think of very large companies, more often than not, when you're rolling out a new service or application, the argument can be made that the majority of it is glue. Because you already have so many systems and applications out there you have to glue them together somehow, so you're forced to be agile. It's never a question of being able to buy a package from a vendor and use it on day one.

With that many managed access points on the street, the Verizon people have been gaining some valuable experience with Wi-Fi in the real world. Terry Schmidt isn't optimistic about nonfree business models for Wi-Fi. He says, “We don't think that a lot of the for-pay wireless stuff has a sustainable business model. Companies like T-Mobile, with all those Starbucks locations, are hemorraging money, and almost nobody's using them.”

Meanwhile, plenty of people are taking advantage of free Wi-Fi in places like Bryant Park and Alt.Coffee. “Free wireless is good for business”, Terry says.

That's the model. Local business owner says, “I'm going to make my business and my surrounding market more valuable by providing free wireless. It's an attractive thing to do. It enhances the environment and attracts customers.”

Does Verizon's service, free for existing customers, serve as a conditional flower box? I believe so. Verizon is the incumbent local phone company in New York. It has a lot of home and business DSL customers. Flower boxes that appear magically for those customers are a nice bonus to existing service. It's a way for Verizon to say “Take that laptop out of here. Go sit in a cafe somewhere”.

This kiosk at Bryant Park hosts an access point.

The Bryant Park Welcome Page


Doc Searls is the Editor in Chief of Linux Journal


Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

Re: Linux Makes Wi-Fi Happen in New York City

Anonymous's picture

Personally, I'm looking for this kind of 'exciting development' in my neighborhood, but rural New Hampshire is not going to go WiFi for a few decades, I'm certain!!! I'm glad someone is doing it, though.

I really loved the ghetto blaster conversion idea - very reminiscent of the 1970s trend of converting floor standing 78 RPM Victrolas to use 'modern' turntables (to play LPs/45s) and adding an AM/FM reciever to make a former cast-off into a retro home entertainment center.... just like this Bass-Station, for today.

Great article!