Networking

Why public Wi-Fi is an important amenity in urban public spaces

Public wireless is an important amenity for patrons in urban spaces, says George Townley, Director of Wireless Development and Project Management Skypackets - Govs Island.

George Townley, Director of Wireless Development and Project Management Skypackets - Govs Island spoke to TechRepublic's Dan Patterson about providing "excellent" Wi-Fi service, but admits public wireless is no longer an amenity, but should be. The following is an edited transcript of the interview.

What better experience in an urban setting than NYC? "I worked for Bryant Park in Midtown New York for 13 years," George Townley tells TechRepublic's Dan Patterson.

"I ran the Wi-Fi network there. It is an environment that is not exactly like this, but there are similar challenges. Where it's a beautiful space and you want to be able to provide excellent service to the patrons, but at the same time you need to be aware of the look and feel of the network and the equipment that's being installed. So best service to a person means you have a clear line of sight. But clear line of sight means that you have something that is visible and that is sometimes a challenge for a public space, public space that is beautiful. So there are ways to manage that. Tyler showed this lovely wrap that we have, where we can mask some of the elements. Or there are different radios that have maybe smaller antennas that can be visible and the radio itself can be tucked away.

So that is one challenge with a public space; another one is that Wi-Fi, it doesn't go around corners. This is true for a park. It's true for downtown New York. It's true for everywhere. So you can put up an AP and think, well, I've got an omnidirectional antenna. I'll get coverage where I need it. But that may not be the case. There may be a building in the way, now you have a shadow. So you need more APs and usually directional antennas and that takes a lot of planning. Other challenges may not necessarily come to mind, for example, until you're dealing with it is trees. Trees make our public spaces beautiful and that's why you want to be there, but they also really mess with Wi-Fi signals.

SEE: European telecoms set to launch inflight LTE-powered Wi-Fi network (TechRepublic)

Right now it's winter and there really aren't any leaves on the trees so signal propagation's pretty good. But six months from now, when it's beautiful and it's populated and more people are in a public space, you also have leaves on the trees. Leaves are full of water and it screws up the Wi-Fi signal. So you need to be aware of that, and plan around that. So you need to get below tree lines, which again brings you back to, 'okay, now it's below a tree line but that access point is more visible.' So how do we still hide that but make it provide good service? It's a balancing act and it can be very challenging and, frankly a little frustrating sometimes, but it's part of the fun of it.

And then the last piece of a public space is you almost need to design two networks. You need to design a network for average day-to-day use, where you have your normal amount of people coming in and out of the island. You can account for that and build out an excellent network. But then you have special events that come in and suddenly your user-metrics double or triple or quadruple, and you need to be able to adjust for that as well. You don't necessarily want to build out that full network with that much capacity for your everyday use, but maybe you have a plan for working with event producers to supplement the existing network and take advantage of the existing backhaul. These are all things that need to be done, sort of, on the fly. It's a challenge, but again, that's why we enjoy doing this and it's a thing that we have a good deal of experience with.

And the city has quite a few initiatives going at once. They've got the Link kiosks running. Those work really well but they only cover a small amount of area around that specific kiosk and then you have a gap until the next one. There are other initiatives to get better coverage and more consistent coverage throughout the city and there are definite challenges there, as have already been mentioned by other people. You need to know where you can mount things, how they can be mounted. Is there power? Is there data? These are all challenges. I mean, they can be figured out but it takes planning. 18-36 months from now, it's difficult to say. I would love to say that 18 months from now I could see more consistent wireless coverage throughout the city, be it Wi-Fi, CBRS, 5G. I don't know if that is a practical expectation.

The city is not so many square miles, but it is ... there's just a tremendous amount of footage for street and sidewalk coverage and it's very complex. And, as I said before, Wi-Fi doesn't turn a corner. So you really need to be able to plan that out very carefully. And then deployment of that is extremely difficult. If you need to run fiber in the city, you can do that but frequently you can open up a manhole or open up the street and find things that nobody knew was there, because New York has been here for so long, which is a strange thing to run into. Somebody digs a hole in the street and they say, 'Oh, there's a brick pipe here that we didn't know was here and it's probably been here for 200 years. Oh, okay. That's new.'

SEE: Android will now tell you the speed of a Wi-Fi network, and what you can do on it, before you connect (TechRepublic)

So these are challenges. And it's part of what makes New York difficult to work in, but also, again, it is exciting and interesting. And I think 36 months from now, that is probably enough time, I would hope, for a lot of the infrastructure issues to be sorted out. Fiber should be more readily available in more of the city. I know that there are pockets of the city that are very well covered, but certain areas maybe are not so. So hopefully that gets sorted out and then that alleviates some of the difficulties and then that gets spread into wireless access for more people. Public wireless is a ... it's no longer an amenity. I think it used to be an amenity and it was a nice to have. But there are many neighborhoods that we interact with where there's almost no data access. There's old copper lines and certain areas of the city are susceptible to flooding and copper lines go down at that point and then there's and internet access. And that's troubling because often it's underserved areas that are maybe economically not so well off. And those frequently are people who need access the most.

Being able to provide consistent wireless coverage, free access to the Internet, is a tremendously important thing. And it's not just for people sitting in a park. It really is for the people who live and breathe in New York. I think that's why it's such an important amenity."

Also see

George Townley, Director of Wireless Development and Project Management Skypackets
Dan Patterson/TechRepublic

About Dan Patterson

Dan is a Senior Writer for TechRepublic. He covers cybersecurity and the intersection of technology, politics and government.

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox