Work, Unplugged

New York Daily News
July 9, 2007

by Daniel Carty

With WiFi hotspots growing, laptoppers can do their jobs amid the great outdoors

Enjoying a gentle breeze in Bryant Park in a polo shirt, cargo shorts and sneakers, Robert Farrell didn't look like a man putting in a day of work.

But by using his laptop to tap into the park's free WiFi Internet network on this hot summer day, the 48-year-old Web developer tended to his business under a blue sky as lunchtime strollers come and go.

"I could sit in my studio all day working, but it's nice to come outside and work," said Farrell, who lives about 15 blocks away on W. 57th St. "As long as I have an Internet connection, my business is right here."

The Bryant Park WiFi network, launched five years ago and now averaging about 150 users a day, is one of a growing number of public Internet hotspots in the city.

Tens of thousands of New Yorkers are logging onto free networks offered at parks, coffee shops and other small businesses throughout the city. Some surf for fun, others complete school assignments, but a growing number are at work.

While WiFi is typically slower than Internet connections such as cable modems or DSL, and crawls compared to ultrafast connections in offices, it comes with an attractive advantage: open space.

As Farrell worked, about a dozen feet away, Matt Power, a 30-year-old entrepreneur from London, used his laptop to keep track of his business, an English-as-a-second-language startup. Though he was staying with friends in New Jersey, he commuted an hour into Manhattan to use the park's WiFi.

"For me, it's perfect to be able to sit here and do my work, rather than being stuffed up in some office somewhere," Power said.

Recent college grad Hannah Scranton, 21, of East Elmhurst, Queens, also was doing some work amid the shrubs and lawn chairs. Another time, the free Web access helped seal her social plans with her boyfriend.

"We wanted to see one of the free operas in Central Park, but we didn't remember when it started," she said. "So I just stopped by here and checked the details. It's really convenient."

WiFi, short for wireless fidelity, works life this: A wireless Internet router sends a signal that's picked up by computer modems, personal digitial assistants and Internet-equipped cell phones within about 250 feet. The wireless signal is transmitted over the airwaves on the 2.4-gigahertz band, the same unlicensed spectrum microwaves travel on - and once dominated by the cries of infants on baby monitors.

About 300 U.S. municipalities have WiFi, or are planning for it.

New York isn't one of them, leaving independent organizations to fill the void.

One of them is Manhattan-based WiFi Salon. Along with a partner, Nokia, WiFi Salon has created 17 local hotspots, including seven in Central Park.

Marcos Lara, WiFi Salon's chief technology officer, who created and still runs Bryant Park's network, believes this is a historic time for information sharing.

"This is not the first time big thinkers sat down and thought that information dissemination to the masses was a good thing," Lara said. "That happened one other time and that was with the public library system. This is the public library system of our generation."

NYC Wireless, a nonprofit, also manages WiFi hotspots, including 16 throughout the city, and has helped set up countless more.

"We believe that, just as you get benches and trees and shade for free, you should get free Internet as well," said Dana Spiegel, president of NYC Wireless.

The group's method is to approach businesses near open public spaces and ask them to pay some of the setup costs, while providing the hardware necessary to host a wireless network.

The payoff for nearby businesses is that the WiFi hotspot they help create will attract potential customers to the area.

In addition to the sites it's set up on its own, NYC Wireless partnered with the Downtown Alliance to create eight public WiFi areas in lower Manhattan, including at South Street Seaport and in City Hall Park.

As WiFi networks creep into more of the city's public spaces, users return to a familiar theme - the joy of being outdoors.

Akil El, 23, a student at Polytech University in Brooklyn, spent a recent afternoon in Bryant Park searching online for a summer job.

"It's a different environment - it's not every day where you go out," El said. "You're underneath trees. It's sort of relaxing even when you're pumping out résumés and every 10 minutes you're looking over your cover letter."