By the Blouin News Technology staff

The race toward public Wi-Fi

by in Personal Tech.

Source: MTA/flickr

Source: MTA/flickr

The announcement that New York City will finally begin installing the first LinkNYC access points — hubs that use upgraded infrastructure to provide gigabit Wi-Fi access — highlights the massive challenges encountered by cities as they work to implement wireless access that runs at decent speeds.

Over one year after the city of New York first announced plans for these access points, in November 2014, the work is just beginning, with 500 set to be installed throughout the city by mid-July 2016. The full network will consist of more than 7,500 hubs, and the hubs themselves are replacing existing phone booths. The Verge reports that the hubs will include USB device charging ports, touchscreen web browsing, and two 55-inch advertising displays. Ad revenue is expected to generate more than $500 million over the next 12 years.

Public Wi-Fi comes with obvious benefits for city-goers, but also has broader implications for improving urban areas and making cities more efficient, especially in terms of traffic and carbon emissions. Big data is at play here, with city governments able to use data from public Wi-Fi networks to better understand both vehicle and foot traffic patterns — a primary concern among privacy advocates over this past holiday season.

But sometimes such implementation is easier said than done. New York has spent a lot of time and money figuring out how to extend connectivity around its boroughs, using small cell technology to strengthen its subway system’s Wi-Fi networks. And public transportation is one of the first systems in which governments look to improve connectivity. This week, reports from the U.K. note that the government is in talks with infrastructure providers and mobile operators to move ahead with a major upgrade to 4G internet on its railroad networks. In February, Prime Minister David Cameron promised free Wi-Fi on trains in the U.K. by 2017.

The airport is another system in which public Wi-Fi is now expected, perhaps even more so than on trains. Although Wi-Fi in airports is usually not free, it has made leaps and bounds since its early (slow) days, thanks notably to small cell technology.

But Wi-Fi has a long way to go in most places, with New York City in the vanguard. The more free, public wi-fi that finds its way into cities around the world, the more the internet becomes viewed as a right, not a privilege, and the more data becomes available for municipalities to process and understand user patterns. Many argue that as public Wi-Fi proliferates, proper governance of such data is needed. As usual, the technology is evolving faster than regulation.