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Last Updated: Saturday, 21 August, 2004, 06:41 GMT 07:41 UK
New York set for citywide wireless
By Matt Wells
BBC, New York

New York City is on the verge of going fully wireless, according to a deal being finalised this month between authorities and a group of six technology companies.

New York
New Yorkers suffer from patchy mobile coverage
In exchange for being able to mount up to 18,000 new lamp post-based antennas, to strengthen coverage around the five boroughs, the companies will pay the city government around $25m each year.

Anyone who uses a mobile phone regularly in the city knows that it is a much-needed development.

Reception black-spots are common, and calls are often lost. A host of different carrier companies operate here but everyone grumbles about the unpredictability of service.

"I can't use my cell phone in my house, so I have to use my internet connection as a phone," one young man said commenting on the new plans, in downtown Union Square park.

"You'd think we had everything the best here, that we'd have the best cell service, but we don't," he added.

"I never know when I'm going to be able to hear someone, it seems sometimes that cell service cuts out," said another exasperated Brooklynite.

'Aesthetically appropriate'

The man in charge of seeing through the new wireless deal is Gino Menchini, the suave city commissioner in charge of the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications.

The city sanctioned a similar deal back in 1996, but the single company involved then went bust after installing only a few thousand antennas.

"The antennas themselves are low-profile, the designs themselves have to be reviewed by the New York City art commission to make sure they are aesthetically appropriate," said Commissioner Menchini in an interview at City Hall.

He said that barring unforeseen obstacles, the enhanced wireless coverage should be operational by January at the latest.

But not everyone in the city is welcoming the new era with open arms.

Nobody runs a microwave 24 hours a day, seven days a week, outside their bedroom door when they are sleeping... That's why it's important we study this
Peter Vallone Jr, Queens council member
In the borough of Queens, local activist John Campos has set up a protest group which is lobbying for what he describes as a more responsible placing of wireless transmitters and antennas.

He thinks the city is failing to place any effective regulatory restraint, or safety controls, on companies whose bottom line is profit, not public service.

"Within where I live, over a mile radius, there are over 300 antennas already," said Mr Campos, pointing at a cluster of small masts on a rooftop across the street.

Based on individual wireless mast technology studies in Europe and Asia, he believes New York needs to think harder about the lack of conclusive data so far.

"What happens if in 20 years, there's even a minor adverse reaction to human beings?" he asked.

"Why not build in a more responsible manner, using a precautionary principle, so that we know we can establish this communication and technology in a way that will stand the test of time?

"I don't think that's too much to ask for."

At least one local politician shares those concerns. Peter Vallone Jr is a Queens council member and chairman of the city's safety committee.

He is annoyed that even the current concerns of his constituents are not being addressed, let alone a new era of expansion.

"The city was in the papers when I first came out against this, saying there's less radiation than from a microwave (oven) from these antennas, and that may be true," said councilman Vallone.

"But nobody runs a microwave 24 hours a day, seven days a week, outside their bedroom door when they are sleeping. That's why it's important we study this," he added.

Ideal glimpse

Commissioner Menchini is aware of the criticisms and points out that in the franchises, the onus is on companies to pay for, and carry out, any future health studies that the city deems necessary.

"We've had industry experts come in and advise us on this and everything I've heard, from our health commissioner to the industry experts, says there's no health risk associated with these antennas and these devices," he said.

Girl using a wi-fi laptop
Glimpse of a wireless future?
"This is something that makes sense," he added. "The companies are anxious to do it, and we think it will improve service for New Yorkers."

There is already one patch of midtown Manhattan that provides an ideal glimpse of what a more wireless-friendly New York will be like.

Bryant Park has been providing a free service to any laptop user who wants access for many months now.

People come from all over the city to log-on and work in the sunshine, and naturally, everyone I spoke to welcomed the idea of extending this kind of coverage.

But when it came to the longer-term health effects, there was more scepticism than perhaps the city would like to hear.

Lilly Martinez, from Brooklyn, was using the service for the first time, and found it slow with the sheer volume of users logged on.

She said she was "freaked out" by the idea of a huge microwave expansion.

"What does this mean for my brain?" she asked.

"The service is not for me, it's going to be all about them, and what they can get out of it."

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