This month Time Warner Cable and Cablevision renewed their franchising agreements with New York City’s telecom agency, the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT). As part of the agreement, the MSOs have to invest in a number of additional services for New Yorkers, including broadband access for underserved areas in the 5 boroughs, equipping public parks with Wi-Fi access and agreeing to certain customer service protections, like credits for missed appointments and outages.
The cable companies essentially pay rent for using the city’s spaces to offer services, but federal law prohibits the city from taking a franchise fee of more the 5 % in revenues. So when contract renewals came up, the city negotiated additional benefits for its constituents, such as the following:
- TWC will partner with local nonprofits to create 40 public computer centers with free broadband access within low-income communities.
- Cablevision will provide free Internet service to all public libraries within its service area.
- The MSOs will invest about $2 million in communications infrastructure to underserved commercial and industrial areas, including the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
- The city’s public channels will be increased and at least one will be in HD.
- Customer service protections (modeled after the 2008 Verizon FiOS franchise agreement with the city), such as customer credits for missed appointments and outages and standards for repairs and service interruptions.
- Upgrades in city’s institutional fiber network, Citynet.
According Nicholas Sbordone, a spokesperson for DoITT, the fact that broadband access is becoming less of an amenity and more of an expectation for people was a big driver with these negotiations. The government should not necessarily be an ISP provider, but rather engaged in public/private partnerships to get it done. That promotes competition, he said. “We’re seeing broadband and open-space Wi-Fi in more places. [With these negotiations] we can leverage our authority and expand access to that.”
The city’s goal is to use all the tools—i.e. companies that provide services—they have at their disposal. “It’s not a one-size fits all model,” he said. “Take AT&T for example, which is offering free Wi-Fi in parks for 5 years. That’s one model.” (The DoITT says AT&T’s service will be available in 26 locations and 20 NYC parks across the 5 boroughs.) “Cable providers are doing this as a condition of the franchise agreement. That’s another model. If we have any other working models we’ll use those.”
The new agreement requires Cablevision and TWC to provide Wi-Fi in 32 public parks within 2 years. The service is free to the MSOs’ subscribers, and free—to a point—for others. The cap on the free service is 3, 10-minute sessions per month. After that, it’s 99 cents a day.
Cable companies aren’t the first to equip parks with Wi-Fi. And others who have done it have a different definition of “free.” In June, Mayor Bloomberg announced that 20 of the city’s parks would equipped with free Internet, provided by AT&T for the next 5 years. Moreover, Bryant Park has had free Wi-Fi since 2002, when the nonprofit group NYCwireless installed the service.
In addition, as pointed out by the New York Times, private company and Internet provider Towerstream launched its Manhattan Distribution Network on the same day, which gives users four hours of free Wi-Fi when they download a daily deal app from a host of sponsors, including Amazon, Google and eBay.
Though the franchise agreement will require the MSOs to build out more hotspots, both companies have been providing some access anyway. In March 2010, TWC partnered with Cablevision and Comcast to give its subscribers free access to Wi-Fi at almost all Long Island Railroad commuter rail platforms on Long Island, many Metro North and NJ Transit stations and some parks throughout the 5 boroughs. Cablevision says it currently offers Optimum Wi-Fi at tens of thousands of outdoor locations.