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New York City's ambitious free Wi-Fi plan sounds great, unless you live in a poor neighborhood

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Is this what municipal internet service is going to look like?

Kena Betancur/Getty Images

Last week an ambitious public Wi-Fi project called LinkNYC was unveiled: an effort that will erect up to 10,000 pillars offering free wireless internet and domestic phone calls to New York City's residents and visitors. It's a bold public-private partnership that has been sold to the people as a program that "will be built at no cost to taxpayers." CityBridge, the company behind the project, says it will even "generate more than $500 million in revenue for the city over the first 12 years." That all sounds great — except it's not the municipal Wi-Fi dream we were promised.

There was reason to be skeptical of the plan when it was announced last week. Each LinkNYC pillar will throw "gigabit" internet in a radius of up to 150 feet. That's Google Fiber fast, but it all depends on how well the signal can penetrate buildings and other objects around it. And, more importantly, there's also the fact that no wireless devices capable of handling anything close to gigabit speeds exist right now. But those aren't even the biggest problems with the plan.

citybridge wifi

Today the NY Daily News revealed that many of the Wi-Fi kiosks throughout the city will provide speeds 10 times slower than the advertised gigabit speeds. While Manhattan will be densely covered by the fastest possible speeds, the Daily News reports that other New York residents won't be so lucky; the network will reportedly operate more slowly on average in Staten Island and poorer neighborhoods in Brooklyn and the Bronx. The mayor's office told the Daily News that the tiered-speed system is only temporary, but it could take a long time for the system to get up to speed; the first kiosks are expected in late 2015 but the project could take many years to complete.

And even if every LinkNYC kiosk carried the maximum speeds, the system would fall dramatically short of providing access to all New Yorkers. Each kiosk has limited range, and in many neighborhoods they will be spaced so far apart that residents might as well just go to a coffee shop or library for free internet — it's not going to be pouring into their homes.

LinkNYC is certainly advanced in many respects, and even 100Mbps of download speed is truly better than what most people get from their home ISP or wireless carrier. Those speeds just won't matter much if the people who need it the most, specifically the poorest members of society, won't have convenient access to it.

"For every New Yorker, in every borough"

One of the biggest problems is that LinkNYC will be funded by advertising, and as the Daily News correctly points out, the poorest neighborhoods in the city aren't worth as much to advertisers as tourist-packed Times Square. That's a reality that makes sense for profit-seeking businesses to build around, but not so much for public-facing utilities that ought to provide reasonably equal levels of service to everyone. It's also not what we were sold by Mayor Bill de Blasio, who made this grand statement about the program last week:

"This administration has been committed to expanding affordable access to broadband for all New Yorkers from the outset. It's essential for everything we need to do to be a fair and just city, because we can't continue to have a digital divide that holds back so many of our citizens. With this proposal for the fastest and largest municipal Wi-Fi network in the world — accessible to and free for all New Yorkers and visitors alike — we're taking a critical step toward a more equal, open and connected city — for every New Yorker, in every borough."

As Susan Crawford argues, US mayors have a great opportunity to bring municipal broadband service to millions of Americans who have been abused or neglected by monopolistic internet service providers. Hopefully New York City residents won't be shafted by another public-private partnership that makes the digital divide deeper while merely claiming to bridge it.