Instead of ribbon, officials cut Ethernet cables in New York on Tuesday as a symbolic way of opening the largest free Wi-Fi zone in the city, courtesy of Google.

The search and technology giant and its partner, the Chelsea Improvement Co., will shell out about $45,000 a year to operate the service on top of its $115,000 set-up cost, according to reports, but Google stands to benefit not only from the good publicity but increased customer access to its most profitable products, such as search and mobile ads.

Investment Close to Home

The downtown area of the Meatpacking District and Chelsea includes residential, entertainment and business areas and has since 2006 been home to Google's second-largest base of operations, after its Mountain View, Calif., headquarters. The New York office employs about 3,000 people.

"We have partnered with Google to create New York City's largest contiguous Wi-Fi network, with 29 separate Wi-Fi radios," the Chelsea Improvement Co. said on its Web site, adding that the project took 18 months to implement and that Google's sponsorship covered capital costs. "We know that the network will be a valued amenity for the neighborhood's residents, companies, and visitors."

Benjamin Fried, Google's chief information officer, said at the launch event at the Fulton Senior Center that the Wi-Fi network extends from Gansevoort Street to 19th Street, from 8th to 10th Avenues, and will also be available indoors at the senior center and for residents of a nearby public housing complex. A map of the covered zone is available on the Chelsea Improvement Co.'s Web site.

"All you need is a laptop or smartphone and a Web browser to get online," Fried said. "We all know the Internet has the power not just to connect people around the world but to bring together diverse people like those in this community."

The New York City Housing Authority applauded the free Wi-Fi zone, "particularly for public housing residents in the surrounding area," said NYCHA Chairman John B. Rhea. "Expanding affordable broadband access in NYCHA communities helps to close the digital divide and also supports NYC's efforts to bring more services online, including the ability to apply for public housing; electronic application for NYCHA-supported jobs, and other enhancements."

New York Sen. Charles Schumer, reading notes from a connected iPad, said the relatively modest cost of the project created the possibility that free Wi-Fi could be added throughout the entire five boroughs of New York City, with the help of federal funds.


"It's high-tech, it's high speed, it's high job-growth and it's free," said the senator, noting the cost of Wi-Fi aboard airplanes and at some hotels.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg said free Wi-Fi was already available at 20 parks in the city, some provided by AT&T, and another 32 areas are expected to be accommodated by September.

Technology consultant Rob Enderle of the Enderle Group told us the high population density of the Manhattan neighborhood made this a cost-effective strategy for Google.

"You get your name in front of a lot of folks and the cost per person is not a lot for high-quality contact," he said. "When you sign in to free Wi-Fi, it inevitably ties you back to a Google property, like the Chrome browser."