Time Warner Cable is looking to the airwaves to maintain and build its ISP business, offering more than one million New York City subscribers access to free Wi-Fi hot spots throughout the city, beginning Thursday. And in an agreement with rival Cablevision, customers from both companies will have access to each other's Wi-Fi networks in the Tri-State area, vastly increasing the amount of available hot spots.

Wide Spectrum

Time Warner serves the boroughs of Manhattan, Queens, Staten Island, and the western part of Brooklyn, as well as surrounding areas in Westchester County and northern New Jersey. Cablevision, which offers Optimum Online Internet access, covers the rest of Brooklyn, the Bronx, and parts of Connecticut and New Jersey.

"Our sophisticated network is a combination of wireless and wireline services, bringing a wide spectrum of products and services to our customers," said Howard Szarfarc, executive vice president of Time Warner Cable's New York City region. "This free new Wi-Fi option adds another dimension for Road Runner customers, bringing even more convenience."

Users access the system with their Optimum or Road Runner usernames and passwords.

Cablevision rolled out its $310 million Optimum Wi-Fi network in September 2008, beginning on Long Island. Time Warner's fledgling network now includes several Long Island Railroad platforms in Queens and Long Island as well as Manhattan's Bryant Park, Madison Square Park, the 79th Street Boat Basin, and four parks in Queens.

Hot Spots Are Hot

The subscriber-only Wi-Fi zones add to thousands of hot spots operated by wireless carriers such as AT&T and T-Mobile at malls and retail outlets. In 2005 New York City began providing Wi-Fi access at several public parks, but the service was discontinued in 2008, ostensibly for budget reasons. The New York Public Library also provides Wi-Fi at its branches.

For media conglomerates, Wi-Fi is an increasingly important feature as portable devices become usable for multiple purposes, said Altimeter Group analyst Michael Gartenberg.

"It's becoming a value play, especially when players like Verizon have mobile solutions as part of their core DNA," said Gartenberg. "This makes offerings from cable companies more attractive for consumers. More importantly, it reflects a trend of three core consumer screens -- PC, TV and phone -- that are connected and work together. Consumer expectations have changed, and these companies are adapting to meet that."

Cities such as Philadelphia, Anaheim, New Orleans, and San Francisco have experimented with free Wi-Fi, and the Internet provider EarthLink sought to replace its dying dial-up business by setting up the systems, but the company decided in 2007 that the projects weren't profitable enough.

In 2005, businessman Andrew Rasiej, a former nightclub owner, launched a campaign for New York City public advocate based entirely on a plan for free Wi-Fi, which he said was a basic right that could help people share information such as the locations of potholes. But his campaign didn't catch fire.

Time Warner is the second-largest cable operator in the U.S., serving 14 million customers in New York, the Carolinas, Ohio, southern California, and Texas.