Anytime? Anywhere?: Reframing Debates Around Municipal Wireless Networking

Laura Forlano

Ph.D. Candidate, Communications Columbia University


Over the past three years, cities across the United States have announced ambitious plans to build community and municipal wireless networks.  The phrase ‘anytime, anywhere’ has had a powerful impact in shaping the way in which debates about these networks have been framed.  However, ‘anytime, anywhere’, which alludes to convenience, freedom and ubiquity, is of little use in describing the realities of municipal wireless networks, and, more importantly, it ignores the particular local characteristics of communities and the specific practices of users.  This paper examines the media representations and technological affordances of wireless networks as well as incorporating the practices of those that build and use them in an attempt to reframe these debates.


In May 2007, I opened my mailbox to find a curious letter from Verizon (the US telecommunications company). “Unlimited calling – that’s anytime, anywhere,” the letter announced. The phrase, ‘anytime, anywhere’ has become synonymous with the freedoms associated with the current era of mobile communication. It can be found everywhere from advertising slogans and newspaper articles to policy papers and business plans. As such, the concept has had a powerful impact in shaping the way in which debates about municipal wireless networks have been framed over the past three years. However, as I will illustrate in the following discussion, the language of ‘anytime, anywhere,’ which alludes to convenience and ubiquity, is of little use in describing the realities of municipal wireless networks, and, more importantly, it ignores the particular local characteristics of communities and the specific practices of users. This paper examines the media representations and technological affordances of wireless networks as well as incorporating the practices of those who build and use them in an attempt to reframe current debates about community and municipal wireless networks. These debates suffer from a technological determinism that has crippled their ability to envision alternative, and more innovative, solutions to address the challenges of building sustainable networks. Specifically, these top-down, ‘if we build it they will come’ strategies for communications infrastructure deployment, will fail without a reframing of these debates that is linked to local concerns and practices.


In the past decade, a range of mobile and wireless technologies – hardware and devices, software and applications, equipment and networks -- have widely proliferated in both developed and developing countries. Mobile and wireless devices include mobile phones, personal digital assistants (PDAs), Blackberry’s, laptops, routers and antennas. Currently, there are 2.8 billion mobile phones in use; 1.6 million are added daily ("A world of connections", 2007). These devices communicate with one another through cellular networks and wireless networks operating on standards such as Bluetooth, infared, radio frequency identification (RFID), near field communication (NFC), 802.11x (WiFi) and 802.16 (Wimax). These wireless standards are rapidly being embedded into personal documents (passports and driver’s licenses), products (consumer electronics, clothing and packaged goods), places (architecture and the built environment) and people (RFID-implants in Japanese children).

In 1985, the Federal Communications Commission in the United States designated a small slice of the electromagnetic spectrum as unlicensed, meaning that no license was required to innovate in the hardware, software or applications using this spectrum. This spurned a wealth of inventions including microwave ovens, cordless telephones, baby monitors and garage door openers in addition to a wide variety of other consumer home electronics. In the late 1990’s, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) standardized 802.11x or wireless fidelity (WiFi) networks, which use unlicensed spectrum. WiFi allows for the sharing of a single broadband Internet connection with a group of users.

There are several models for the deployment of WiFi networks including decentralized hotspot networks, centralized networks of hotspots, and mesh networks. Currently, there are 143,429 WiFi hotspots in 134 countries1. Mesh networks allow a group of computers to be connected wirelessly regardless of whether or not they are connected to the Internet. However, if one of the computers in the network is connected to the Internet, all of the other computers will also be connected to the Internet. In the near future, it is believed that mobile and wireless devices will be enabled with mesh receivers that allow them to create ad-hoc networks with the devices around them, again, regardless of whether or not they are connected to the Internet.

Beginning in the late 1990s, early adopters of mobile and wireless technologies founded wireless user groups (WUGs), free networks groups (freenets) and community wireless networks (also referred to as community wireless organizations), and began experimenting with, developing software for, and building wireless networks in their cities. Many of the individuals involved in community wireless networks emerged from the Free Libre / Open Source Software (FLOSS) movement. Some of them developed an interest in the potential of WiFi sharing and community wireless when they found that they could not get high-speed Internet access in their own homes (Bar & Halperin, 2006; Hampton & Gupta, forthcoming; Jungnickel, 2008; Longford, 2005; Medosch, 2006; Meinrath, 2005; Powell & Shade, 2006; Sandvig, 2004; Townsend, 2005). Thus, they found ways to share Internet access wirelessly with the nearest wired building sometimes across significant distances.2

Today, there are thousands of WUGs, freenets and community wireless networks worldwide in cities including Seattle, New York, Champaign-Urbana, San Francisco, San Diego, Portland, Austin and Boston in the United States, in Montreal and Toronto, Canada; London; Berlin; Paris, Budapest; Tallinn, Estonia; Belgrade, Serbia; Johannesburg, South Africa; and Canberra, Australia; among others.3 Despite similarities in the beliefs and values of community wireless networks, these groups vary considerably in size, membership and activities from country-to-country based on political, economic, legal and socio-cultural factors. For example, while one community wireless organization cultivates the growth of networks in New York’s parks and public spaces, another reaches across the Berlin rooftops, and those in Montreal and Budapest center on cafés. In addition, while groups in Seattle, Champaign-Urbana, Montreal and Berlin excel at the development and distribution of open source software, other groups such as the one in New York are more active in policy advocacy, outreach and education. Community wireless networks are examples of the way in which the community form of organizing can be applied in the area of telecommunications infrastructure albeit on a relatively small scale.

In New York, NYCwireless has been building free, public wireless networks in parks and public spaces in partnership with city parks organizations, Business Improvement Districts and local non-profit organizations since 2001. Specifically, NYCwireless has built hotspots at Bryant Park (in partnership with the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation) and eight locations in Lower Manhattan including City Hall Park, the South Street Seaport, the World Financial Center Winter Garden, and the 60 Wall Street Atrium (in partnership with the Downtown Alliance, a Business Improvement District). NYCwireless has also worked with Community Access, a non-profit organization that provides affordable housing for people with psychiatric disabilities, to build wireless networks in three residential buildings in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx. In 2006, NYCwireless built wireless networks in Stuyvesant Cove Park (in partnership with Solar One, an environmental non-profit organization), Brooklyn Bridge Park (in partnership with the DUMBO business improvement district) and Madison Square Park (in partnership with the 34th St. Alliance).

Beginning 2004, there were a number of significant efforts to bring community wireless groups together face-to-face, as well as to link them with other media activists. Most notably, these were the National Community Wireless Networking Summit in Champaign-Urbana, IL and the Fresh Air Free Networks in Djursland, Denmark. In October 2005, the World Summit for Free Information Infrastructures in London, England brought together participants from the community wireless, open source and open mapping communities (groups working on open source geographic information systems). In March 2006, a second National Community Wireless Networking Summit was held in St. Charles, MO and in May 2007 an International Community Wireless Network Summit was held in Columbia, MD. In addition, in October 2006, an event was held in India and, in August 2007, another event was held in Ghana.

Several years later, after the early experiments by community wireless networks, municipal governments became interested in the possibility of deploying municipal wireless networks in order to increase economic development by lowering the cost of Internet access for poor communities and small businesses. In 2004, Philadelphia became the first large city to announce plans to build a municipal wireless network. A public policy debate ensued, and in November 2004, Verizon succeeded in passing state legislation in Pennsylvania that prevented municipal governments from providing broadband services. While Philadelphia was allowed to continue with their project, a total of 15 states have passed anti-municipal broadband laws in recent years. This legislation requires that cities give telecommunication and cable companies the right to disallow plans to build municipal wireless networks4.

Despite this, since 2004 over 350 cities – including Boston, Chicago and San Francisco, Los Angeles, Houston and Austin -- have deployed, planned or are seriously considering building municipal wireless networks including regional/citywide networks, hotzones and public safety networks (Vos, 2007). There are several common ownership models for municipal wireless networks: privately-owned networks, public-private partnerships, publicly-owned and community-owned networks. Most municipal wireless networks such as those in Philadelphia, San Francisco and Chicago have been conceived as privately-owned networks in which Earthlink or another Internet service provider builds and owns the telecommunications infrastructure. While the city is a partner, they do not share in the burden of the costs but rather provide various in-kind supports and services.

Several smaller cities have designed public-private partnerships or publicly-owned networks where the city is a financial partner. One example is St. Cloud, Florida. More recently, in 2007, many of the municipal wireless projects mentioned above have been unable to identify a business model and have been cancelled or discontinued. For example, in San Francisco, Earthlink failed to reach an agreement with the city because it wanted the city to become the lead user of the network and agree to buy a portion of the network’s bandwidth to ensure that the company would be able to make a profit.

In recent years there have been a number of studies about community wireless networks in the United States and Europe (Bar & Galperin, 2004; Bar & Galperin, 2006; Gillett, 2006; W. Lehr et al., 2004; Longford, 2005; Medosch, 2006; Sandvig, 2004; Werbin, 2006). These studies have documented the emergence of community wireless networks in the United States (Bar & Galperin, 2006; Chang et al., 2005; Forlano, 2006; Meinrath, 2005; Sandvig, 2004), Canada (Longford, 2005; Powell & Shade, 2006), Australia (Jungnickel, 2008) and Europe (Medosch, 2006). In addition, there have been studies of municipal wireless networks (Fuentes-Bautista & Inagaki, 2006; William Lehr et al., 2006; Powell & Shade, 2006; Sandvig, 2006; Sawada et al., 2006; Sirbu et al., 2006; Strover & Mun, 2006; Tapia et al., 2006) as well as the role of urban interfaces for public engagement (Chang et al., 2005). However, overall, scholarship in this area tends to focus on the technical, economic or policy aspects of wireless networks rather than exploring media representations, or technological affordances and uses of wireless networks. More recently, there have been several studies about the use of wireless networks in cafes and public parks (Gupta, 2004; Hampton & Gupta, forthcoming; Hampton et al., 2007).

Theoretical Framework

This paper adopts a number of concepts that have long interested scholars of communications and science and technology studies (STS): causality in technology-society relationships (technologically determined vs. socially constructed); the process of technology development (production vs. consumption); and the social consequences of technological change (revolution vs. evolution, utopia vs. dystopia) (Boczkowski & Lievrouw, 2007). For the purposes of this study, mobile and wireless technologies are situated within Boczkowski and Lievrouw’s (2007: 10) definition of “media and information technologies,” which refers to a “broad class of socio-technical systems that are studied in both STS and communications.” In particular, the following four facets – historical scope, infrastructure, materiality, and the interplay between materiality and symbolic content and meaning – are most important (Boczkowski & Lievrouw, 2007).

Carey’s ‘ritual view of communication’, is employed as a key theoretical framework. Carey argues that most American studies of communication employ a ‘transmission or transportation view of communication’ and the ‘effects’ tradition that views communication “basically as a process of transmitting messages at a distance for the purpose of control,” (1988: 15). In the last decade, since the mainstream adoption of the Internet, there has been an overwhelming emphasis on the ways in which communications transcends geographic constraints. Carey writes that such studies focus on “persuasion; attitude change; behavior modification; socialization through the transmission of information, influence or conditioning,” (1988: 15).

In contrast to the ‘transmission view’, Carey advances a ‘ritual view’, which builds on earlier studies of communication by Harold Innis as well as concepts of culture advanced by Clifford Geertz, Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall. Innis (1951) theorized that all media could be identified as either time-biased or space-biased. Time-biased media such as oral tradition assert their control over the maintenance and preservation of ideas in time while space-biased media such as paper expand the reach of ideas in space for the purposes of control. For the purposes of this study, wireless networks can be understood both as space-biased and as time-biased media. This is because while wireless networks allow users to connect to the Internet, they are also located in bounded physical and digital spaces where users often commune together.

Carey’s ‘ritual view’ elaborates on Innis’ theorizing about time-biased media, asserting the following: first, “communications is first of all a set of practices, conventions, and forms”; second, communication is a process through which shared culture is created, modified, and transformed”; and, third, communication should be “directed not toward the extension of messages in space but in the maintenance of society in time,” and on the “sacred ceremony that draws persons together in fellowship and commonality,” (1988: 18). By adopting the ‘ritual view’ as the key theoretical framework, this paper seeks to understand the practices and cultures of community wireless organizations and users of WiFi hotspots and the way in which they maintain associations in time.

The social construction of technology (Bijker et al., 1987) and actor-network theory (Latour, 2005), frameworks developed in science and technology studies, has been applied in organization studies and techniques such as user-centered design have grown in popularity in ubiquitous computing. Thus, this study employs actor-network theory as the main methodological framework that allows human and technological agents to be seen as having equal status in a network. Actor-network theory is well-suited for a study of mobile and wireless networks in light of future ubiquitous computing scenarios, which imagine a world of networked people and objects (Weiser, 1991). Another advantage of using actor-network theory as a framework is its emphasis on ‘following the user’ in order to uncover relevant practices, technologies and places.

There are several key concepts from science and technology studies that will be helpful in describing wireless networks. These are affordances (J. J. Gibson, 1977; Norman, 1990), infrastructure (Star, 1999; Star & Bowker, 2002) and values (Nissenbaum, 2001). First, affordances are “the perceived and actual properties of the thing, primarily those fundamental properties that determine just how the thing could possibly be used” (Norman, 1990: 9). By examining the affordances of wireless networks, we can begin to understand the possibilities enabled by the technologies, regardless of whether or not they are realized, as well as those that are discovered by users.

Second, the concept of infrastructure as “relational and ecological—means different things to different groups and is part of the balance of action, tools, and the built environment, inseparable from them. It also is frequently mundane to the point of boredom, involving things such as plugs, standards, and bureaucratic forms” (Star, 1999: 1). Star describes the following properties of infrastructure: embeddedness, transparency, reach or scope, learned as part of membership, linked to conventions of practice, embodies standards, built on an installed base, becomes visible upon breakdown, and fixed in modular increments. A related concept underscoring several of these properties is that of the invisibility of infrastructure, in that it becomes taken for granted and thereby disappears into the background unless it breaks down (Star, 1999). Building on these concepts, Boczkowski and Lievrouw suggest that “particular artifacts should be conceptually situated within a broader landscape of related, and often unnoticed or invisible, material things, such as filing cabinets, magnetic tape and optical disks, telephone poles, library shelves, or wireless bandwidth” (2007: 11).

Third, the concept of values is important for understanding the way in which community wireless organizations build on the affordances of wireless networks and embed a range of socio-cultural, economic and political values into the infrastructures that they design. Nissenbaum (2001) poses the following set of questions regarding the embodiment of values in the design of technologies: What is the locus of control? Are they transparent or opaque? Do they support balanced information exchange? Do they discriminate against users? Do they enhance or diminish trust? For the purposes of understanding wireless networks and community wireless organizations, these questions are reframed and expanded. Specifically, are wireless networks centralized or decentralized? Are they open or closed? Do they use proprietary or open source software? Are they visible or invisible? Is access free or paid?

Methodological Framework

This paper draws on four sources of data. First, in order to depict media representations of mobile and wireless technologies, I use LexisNexis5 to search key words such as ‘anytime, anywhere’ and anytime, anyplace’ in the general news section of all major newspapers, as classified by LexisNexis, for all available dates. My searches conducted on May 31, 2007 retrieved over 1800 results. I selected examples to illustrate my key points.

Second, in order to discuss the technological affordances of mobile and wireless technologies, I draw on the results of participant-observation from my experience sharing my Internet connection wirelessly since November 2004. In May 2006, I began using a router configured by NYCwireless that allowed me to track its usage. I observed my own use of “My Little WiFi”, the name of my own wireless network, including features such as the network name or service set identifier (SSID), ‘splash page’ and router as well as interviewing one regular user of my network, my next door neighbor.

Third, in September 2003, as a communications researcher, I launched a special interest group (SIG) on the socio-economic implications of mobile and wireless technology for NYCwireless6, a non-profit community wireless organization in New York. The SIG, composed of artists, architects, policy wonks, engineers and social researchers, explored a number of pressing issues facing advocates of free, public wireless networks including advertising and signage, messaging and advocacy, and measurement and use. Preliminary work on the survey design employed in this project was conducted by SIG members in the summer of 2004. Building on my participation in NYCwireless as a researcher, in January 2005, I joined the organization’s board of directors. In this role, I represented community wireless groups nationwide on the FCC’s Consumer Advisory Committee7 (CAC) for two years from March 2005 to November 2006. In addition, I participated in regular monthly board and general meetings, testified at New York City Council hearings conferences, and attended national and international summits focused on community wireless networks.

Fourth, I draw selectively on data collected through a survey and in-depth interviews with WiFi hotspot users in New York. I conducted a 40-question online survey on the use of wireless networks in cafes, parks, and other public spaces between October 2006 and April 2007, in New York, Montreal and Budapest. The survey was conducted with support from a small grant from Microsoft Research in partnership with local community wireless organizations: NYCwireless (New York), Île Sans Fil (Montreal) and the Hungarian Wireless Community (Budapest). The survey resulted in 1362 responses: New York (614), Montreal (370) and Budapest (378).

In New York, the surveys were publicized through fliers, on listservs, via e-mail announcements, and via the login or “splash” pages of the wireless networks of partner organizations. In New York, the Downtown Alliance, a Lower Manhattan Business Improvement District, placed a link to the survey on their website. The survey was included in New York City Council Member Gale Brewer’s monthly e-mail announcement. In Montreal and Budapest, the survey was publicized only online. The survey was conducted using SurveyMonkey8, an online survey tool. The survey provided a valuable way of identifying informants for in-depth interviews.

The survey asks three types of questions about the use of the wireless Internet: general questions, technology and Internet access-related questions, content and activity9 related questions, and standard demographic questions10 (see appendix for survey protocol). These questions were informed by a number of earlier surveys that have included questions about the use of mass media and the Internet such as the Pew Internet & American Life project and the General Social Survey. More specifically, the survey asks about the location of use, purpose and reason for use, frequency and length of use, types of technologies owned and used, access to the Internet, problems using the network, type of information and websites accessed, and kinds of activities pursued. In addition to the survey, 29 one-hour, open-ended interviews were conducted with users of WiFi hotspots.

Media Representations

By examining the media representations of technologies one can begin to understand how they are socially constructed. Earlier studies of electricity (Marvin, 1988) and cyberspace (Mosco, 2004) have illustrated that media representations of technology typically tend towards technological determinism, alluding to radically utopian visions of convenience, freedom and ubiquity or extremely dystopian scenarios of the future. Rarely do articles depict a balanced or objective view of the technologies in question because, overall, there is a lack of technical literacy regarding science and technology in the popular media. Often, the language used to describe new technologies is adopted directly from engineers or scientists, those charged with innovating the technology, or industry experts, those who aim to profit from the technology. Specifically, with respect to mobile and wireless technology, the field of ubiquitous computing has been integral to the creation of visions, expectations and futures that resonate in the mainstream media. This is particularly true with respect to the linking of the phrase ‘anytime, anywhere’ to mobile and wireless devices in order to connote desires of convenience, freedom and ubiquity.

The phrases ‘anytime, anywhere’ and ‘anytime, anyplace’ have been widely used in the mainstream media over the past several decades to refer to a variety of topics from fishing to free expression, perfume to politics, debates to disarmament inspections, and even terrorist bombings. Some of the earliest uses of the phrase can be found in the late-1970s and early 1980s. For example, in 1977, a satirical Christmas article claims that a boy could go fishing “anytime, anyplace, anywhere, anyhow, any day” despite being 2,000 miles from water (Shales, 1977). In 1978, an article about a political campaign quoted a Hawaiian candidate for Governor, Ariyoshi, as saying, “he would debate Fasi ‘anytime, anyplace,’” (Cannon, 1978). Another article about Beirut, cites an advertising campaign in an English-language weekly, which states, “Anytime, anyplace, an explosion can happen.” (Friedman, 1983). In 1986, an article about a security system quoted Governor Michael S. Dukakis, “It could be the ultimate deterrent against auto theft anytime, anywhere,” (Dole, 1986).

The phrase is also the title of a popular Hadda Brooks jazz song and the tagline from a Martini advertisement. In fact, the phrase ‘anytime, anyplace’ and related concepts can be found in advertising from airlines to newspapers and dating services in addition to the common associations with mobile and wireless technology (see Figures 1-4 below).

Figure 1-2: Continental Airlines Advertisement, New York, NY, 2007; New Haven Register Advertisement, New Haven, CT, 2007.

Figures 3-4: Lavalife Advertisement: “Click with singles anywhere, anytime on your mobile phone at,” New York, NY, 2007; Verizon Wireless Advertisement, New York, NY, 2007.

In recent years, the phrase ‘anytime, anywhere’ has been primarily linked to the convenience, freedom and ubiquity of mobile and wireless technologies. Such language seems to play an important role in framing debates about these technologies by emphasizing mobility, globalization and the totalizing of physical space rather than the importance of local, bounded communities – including community wireless groups and the lived practices of users – as will be described in more detail later in this paper.11

Search Term

Number of Articles

Anytime, anyplace


Anytime, anyplace AND mobile OR wireless (in heading or lead paragraph)


Anytime, anywhere

Over 1000

Anytime, anywhere AND mobile OR wireless (in heading or lead paragraph)


Figure 5: LexisNexis Search of General News in All Major Papers, May 31, 2007

In the early 1990s, the phrase ‘anytime, anywhere’ began to be used to describe the potential for mobility and portability. For example, in 1990, an industry expert can be seen to forecast as follows: “We foresee a tiny communicator that everyone will carry around…the trend is toward portability. That means getting and sending calls anytime, any place,” (Zeidenberg, 1990). Another company advertises, “the ‘personal communicator’ - a portable battery-operated device able to send or receive written or spoken messages at any time, from almost anywhere,” for busy executives (Kehoe, 1992). In 1991, an industry analyst claimed, “We'll have computing anytime, anywhere,” (Clark, 1991) AT&T’s CEO at the time stated that the company is, “letting people connect with each other in ways that satisfy their need virtually anytime anywhere,” and government officials asserted, “The goal…is cellular telephone service “anytime, anyplace,” (Fehr, 1994).

Often, the language is used to describe customer wants, needs and the promises of a technological future. According to the CEO of AirTouch, a defunct U.S. wireless communications company that was formed in 1994, “They want nationwide, seamless service that enables them to (make and take calls) anytime, anyplace,” (Wiseman & Kim, 1994). For example, “Even while they promote a wireless future, nearly every player agrees that fulfilling the vision of "anytime, anywhere" communication is a few years off,” (Zitner, 1994).

In addition, the term is used to describe changing media consumption habits. People are spending less time in traditional places such as ‘at home’ or ‘at the office’. For example, in 2006, The Guardian writes, “The BBC must fundamentally change to meet the challenges of an age where people demand content ‘anytime, anyplace, anywhere’ on a variety of devices, not just TV or radio,” (O. Gibson, 2006a). BBC director general Mark Thompson describes the emergence of “Martini media”, referencing a popular drink advertisement with the “anytime, anyplace, anywhere” tagline (Rigby, 2000). Thompson asserts that, “We should aim to deliver public service content to our audiences in whatever media and on whatever device makes sense for them whether they're at home or on the move,” (O. Gibson, 2006b). In 2001, Microsoft used the slogan ‘anytime, anyplace, any device’ to promote its “grand strategy for mediating our contact with every computer on earth,” (Goldberg, 2001).

Finally, the phrase ‘anytime, anywhere’ has also been used to describe more advanced computing applications such as text-messaging, e-mail and business applications that are touted as enabling workers to be more productive. For example, an article about camera phones indicates that they, “capture the precious and horrid times of our lives -- anytime, anyplace,” (Johnson, 2004). Another article explains that wireless carriers, “sell customers buckets of minutes that can be used anytime, anyplace,” (Solomon, 1999). The CEO of Motorola, Ed Zander, refers to a new era of convergence that is occurring, “on the road in the form of hand-held gadgets that can connect anytime, any place,” (Fost, 2007). Greg Wilfahrt, the co-founder of, an online text-messaging company, states, “Is there ever a drawback to having anytime, anyplace connectivity,” (Finan, 2005). Another article says that people, “prefer text messages because they can read them and respond anytime, anywhere, and quietly, without disturbing anyone,” (Knapp, 2007). An article on smart phones claims, “access to e-mail anytime anyplace seems to go without saying,” (Fitzgerald, 2004) and another argues that, “productivity is about when and how work is done, not where. Employees can be productive anywhere at anytime,” (Knook, 2007).

Finally, this language has infected debates around municipal wireless networks finding its way into articles, requests for proposals and government brochures. For example, Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy says of a county-wide wireless project, “People could connect to the Internet anytime, any place,” (Lambert, 2006). The city of Houston’s wireless network is promoted with a red, glossy brochure that promises connectivity ‘anytime, anywhere’. With respect to municipal wireless networks, the language is particularly problematic because it lures citizens with promises that are unlikely to be met and, if delivered, are probably significantly more costly than anticipated. Due to the properties of wireless technology, it is unlikely that cities will be fully-covered by the network’s signal and, furthermore, may not penetrate many residential or corporate buildings without incurring significant costs for repeaters and the like. Discussions about municipal wireless networks would appear to suffer from a lack of public understanding about the properties of wireless technology.

Affordances of Wireless Networks

The concepts of affordances (J. J. Gibson, 1977; Norman, 1990), infrastructure (Star, 1999; Star & Bowker, 2002) and values (Nissenbaum, 2001) are useful in building a more nuanced understanding of mobile and wireless technologies, in particular, WiFi networks. The most obvious affordance of a WiFi network is its ability to provide connectivity to the Internet. A typical WiFi network currently reaches between 300 to 1000 feet with some variation depending on the type of equipment and the way in which its software is configured and set up. Because its signal reaches a relatively small, bounded geographic area, people must be situated within close range of the network in order to get online. Thus, it is often common to observe people clustered within range of wireless networks whether they are at a café, in a park or public space or merely standing on the street trying to get a signal.

However, it should be noted that a WiFi network does not map onto existing physical or architectural boundaries. Instead, it reconfigures these in a number of ways by permeating walls, bleeding into public spaces and breaking down certain traditional notions of privacy and property while re-enforcing others. For example, an interview with an architect revealed that the availability of mobile and wireless technology significantly changed the ways in which their clients wanted to use the spaces that were being designed for them. When asked where the office was likely to be, clients responded that they might like to work next to the fireplace; or, that they might like to move from room to room while they were working. This contrasted with the architect’s preconceived notions about the use of the rooms that they were designing. In another interview, wireless-networking experts from Edinburgh remarked that hotel staff were puzzled when guests called in requesting to stay in specific rooms of their hotel. When asked, guests replied that reception from the recently installed free wireless network in the bar downstairs was stronger in those rooms.

This reconfiguration of space is also reflected in the organizational culture of information technology companies such as Cisco and IBM, which have embraced more flexible employment models for their full-time employees. According to an interview with a Cisco wireless sales employee, works starts, “when he decides that it starts”. He is not encouraged to go to the office and, instead, works primarily from home. However, when he does go to the office he is free to choose whichever office he pleases, even those currently held by senior management, since there are no assigned desk-spaces for the majority of staff. In this way, the laptop computer and mobile devices themselves become the office. Furthermore, while the Cisco employee works on project teams, they are ad-hoc teams, meaning that they can be dynamically reconfigured as needed. As a further example, according to a recruiting seminar by IBM held at the Columbia Business School in 2006 IBM employees are allowed to work anywhere that IBM has an office. One IBMer reported to having spent most of his summers working from Budapest, Hungary.

A further example: On a rainy day in June 2006, I went to City Hall Park to observe the use of the wireless network. City Hall Park is a small park in downtown Manhattan surrounded by office buildings, including City Hall itself. Understandably, there was almost no one in the park let alone with a soggy laptop computer on their lap. That is, except for myself. I looked around and concluded that it was probably a very bad day to do research on the wireless network. However, upon conducting an analysis of the spectrum being used on the network, I found it buzzing with activity (see Figure 6).

Figure 6: Spectrum Analysis of City Hall Park, June 2006.

In fact, to my surprise, there was more traffic on the network than I had ever before observed. The area underneath the red line in Figure 6 represents the total amount of traffic on the network. The small green triangle at the top of the chart indicates that this is a spectrum analysis of the open wireless network at City Hall Park (SSID: cornercast). My hypothesis for this observation is two-fold. First, it is possible that the network was being accessed by people, invisible to me, who were located in the buildings surrounding the park. Second, there was a college graduation ceremony taking place and it is possible that the videographer was uploading live video of the ceremony to the Internet. Thus, due to this affordance of wireless networks, I concluded that my enthographic observation would be further bolstered by the use of technical data including log data and spectrum analysis.

Star’s concept of infrastructure as relational and ecological refutes the language of ‘anytime, anywhere’ because mobile and wireless technologies must take on different meanings depending on their user(s). Thus, while promises of convenience, freedom and mobility may respond to some needs and desires, clearly the technologies must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis depending on the user and the environment in which the technologies are being used. For example, in my interviews, I uncovered many users who repeatedly use the same wireless network on an almost daily basis for as many as twelve hours a day. While still relatively flexible in their use of the network, it is possible to argue that, for these users, specific times and specific locations matter more than the promise of mobility. Furthermore, I have encountered users that share connectivity, such as sharing a paid wireless Internet account, thereby challenging commonly-held business assumptions and reducing profitability for the providers. These uses contradict the telecommunications industry’s drive for ubiquitous, always-on connectivity because by sharing a wireless account with a friend or colleague they are merely ‘sometimes on’. Similarly, others may work regularly at a café where others go to get online but deliberately not connect to the Internet because they want to be offline (Hampton & Gupta, forthcoming). It is these nuances that are often not accounted for in media representations.

Star explains that infrastructure often becomes visible only on breakdown. Wireless technology both conforms to this logic and counters it. Wireless technology is perhaps more invisible than most infrastructures. Unlike other infrastructures such as electricity, water and basic telecommunications, which are marked by switches, faucets, and wires, there are few signals that wireless networks exist at all. Often, wireless networks are not marked, announced or advertised. It is often only possible to find out that a network exists with a laptop computer that has a built-in receiver that lists the names of the nearby networks. The secure socket identification name (SSID) is sometimes the only indication of the network; sometimes the SSID is not even ‘broadcast’ or announced to the public so only certain users know that it is there. However, when a wireless network is expected to be available but is not working, is when there is a considerable amount of informal interaction among users increases as people share their frustrations.

However, there are also a number of ways in which wireless networks, and their affordances, become visible to those who use them. Most obviously, the clustering of people hovering over their computing devices in public spaces signals that they may in fact be online. In addition, based on experience sharing a wireless network for the past four years, I have learned that the rapid blinking of green lights on my router -- when I am not online -- indicates that other people are using my network. These lights function to make visible the availability of a shared resource, the unlicensed wireless spectrum, which can be used to allow many people to access the Internet at one time.

Furthermore, the NYCwireless ‘splash page,’ a web page that loads when one opens a browser and prompts a user to login, displays a list of the users that are currently or recently online. The ‘splash page’ also functions to make visible the presence of a physical community sharing a resource. Finally, my wireless router (see Figure 7 below), a clear plastic lunchbox with a solar system motif, designed and built by NYCwireless board member Rob Kelley, makes wireless networking technology more visible to me. Through the plastic shell, I can see the router’s circuit board and blinking lights, thereby literally transforming ‘black box’ technology into a designed object.

Figure 7: Wireless Router Designed and Built by Rob Kelley, NYCwireless, 2006.

Community wireless networks have been active in educating people about the existence and availability of these networks, thereby making visible unlicensed spectrum, technologies and the communities that use them. One way in which community wireless networks attempt to make networks visible, is through public outreach. In New York, NYCwireless has conducted a number of public outreach events including Wireless Park Lab Days (September 2003), and New York Live (August 2004), Spectropolis (October 2004), Manchester Live (November 2005) and Berlin Live (November 2006). New York Live connected New York and Budapest for five days for five hours a day via videoconference, Manchester Live connected New York and Manchester for a one-hour city hall meeting and Berlin Live connected New York and Berlin for a simultaneous community wireless meeting between NYCwireless in New York and Freifunk in Berlin. A future event is planned in 2008 to connect New York and Shanghai. Finally, it is important to understand that while the values of community wireless organizations differ from group to group around the world, the organizations are committed to using open source software to build decentralized, open networks that provide free, public Internet access to their communities.

Anytime? Anywhere?

The previous two sections of this paper have discussed the ways in which mobile and wireless technologies are presented in the mainstream media and explored some of the affordances of wireless networks. The last section will present selected findings from the survey and in-depth interviews conducted in New York, which illustrate the need for a reframing of discussions about mobile and wireless technologies in the mainstream media, in the telecommunications and information technology industry, and in public policy discussions of municipal wireless networks in line with the ways in which they are being used.

In February 2007, the Pew Internet & American Life Project reported that 34% of all Internet users have used a wireless connection and 27% have logged on from a place other than home or work (Horrigan, 2007). The following sections will highlight the most important findings from the survey of WiFi hotspots conducted in New York between October 2006 and April 2007. According to this survey, respondents had used WiFi at Starbucks (34%), Bryant Park (33%), the New York Public Library (23%) and independently-owned cafés (21%) in the previous six months. With the exception of Bryant Park, all of these entities comprised multiple locations throughout the city. For example, Starbucks has 153 locations in the New York area (within a five mile radius) where a T-Mobile HotSpot is available.12 The New York Public Library has 69 locations with free WiFi access in the Bronx, Staten Island and Manhattan; Queens and Brooklyn operate their own library systems.13 And, certainly, there are hundreds of cafés throughout the New York area that offer free or paid WiFi access.

In May 2006, at a City Council hearing held by the Committee on Technology in Government, Bryant Park Restoration Corporation Executive Director Dan Biederman testified that their WiFi hotspot attracts 250 users per day. The Bryant Park Wireless Network, which was built in 2002, is one of the first, largest and most widely-used and well-known free, public wireless networks in the world. The project was sponsored by Intel in its initial phase and is currently sponsored by Google. The organization invites New Yorkers to “Turn Bryant Park into your new office,” according to its web site.

One of the main reasons for the popularity of Bryant Park’s WiFi hotspots is that it is outside. Survey respondents said: “It is the best office in the world…I can have my feet in the grass and the world at my fingers,” and “I love the park and being outdoors while still feeling like I am getting work done,” and that the park allows them “To let the kids play outside while I work.” Other popular sites visited by over 10% of respondents include: 60 Wall Street Atrium, Battery Park, City Hall Park, college campuses, JetBlue Terminal and Union Square Park. Starbucks (15%), Bryant Park (10%) and independently-owned cafés (12%) were also the most frequently used hotspots.

One of the most significant findings of the survey is that the availability of WiFi is an important factor in attracting people to the location where they most frequently use the wireless Internet. 40% of respondents indicated that WiFi is the reason that they went to the location and 30% said that WiFi is sometimes the reason that they went to the location. A smaller 26% indicated that WiFi is not the reason that they went to the location. However, in total, it is possible to argue that WiFi is a factor in attracting over 70% of the respondents to this location (the most frequently used as identified in the overall survey).

In addition, when choosing between two coffee shops of similar characteristics and quality, 75% respondents answered that they would choose one that provides WiFi access over one that doesn’t; 20% say they might; and, 5% said that WiFi would not be a factor in their decision. These findings have potential implications for economic development, and supports the observation that WiFi may enable commerce and productivity which would not have occurred otherwise. In fact, in New York, since at least 2002 park organizations and business development organizations have deployed WiFi hotspots in order to attract people to parks and public spaces. However, to date, there has not been any research to verify that their assumptions are correct. In addition, there are still significant differences between specific WiFi hotspots. While some, like Bryant Park, are incredibly successful; others do not attract nearly as many users. This seems to support the idea that there are multiple factors that draw people to specific WiFi hotspots. For example, one respondent that interviewed, a full-time employee at a university club in mid-town, commutes 20 minutes each weekend in order to use the Bryant Park hotspot to work on his food and wine web site, from which he eventually hopes to earn a supplementary income. He likes Bryant Park because it is “comfortable” (in particular, he mentions the patented chairs that include a desk and cup-holder) and he is familiar with the area since he regularly goes there after work (see Figures 8-9 below).

Figures 8-9: New York City’s Bryant Park and Patented Chair Design (August 2006)

His weekend trips represent additional subway journeys and potentially money spent on food and beverages or possibly even shopping while he is out and about. In addition, his website may soon generate additional taxable income. As such, it is possible to argue that the WiFi hotspot increases city revenue in the form of subway tokens and taxes on purchases.

According to the survey, the primary purpose for the use of WiFi is for both work and personal use (63%). A smaller number of respondents indicate that they use WiFi for personal use only (28%) and even fewer say that they use WiFi only for work (11%). It is often difficult to separate personal and work activities since laptops and the Internet have become embedded into everyday life. It thus makes sense that the majority of respondents use WiFi for both work and personal use.

However, respondents who cannot access their personal e-mail at work or prefer to use their own computers for personal e-mail are among those who primarily use WiFi hotspots for personal use. This is an interesting reversal of traditional dichotomies about private and public behavior. Normally, it might be assumed that people conduct personal activities in private spaces such as homes or offices. However, in this case, people explicitly go to public spaces such as parks and cafés in order to do personal activities. This is also supported by ethnographic observations at a café on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in New York in May 2006. There it was found that, in part due to the crowded nature of the café space, people often went outside to make phone calls. While the indoor café space would be regarded as relatively more private as compared to city sidewalks and streets, people went into more public spaces in order to make their phone calls. In addition, since the café was often frequented by regular freelancers, it is possible that while the people inside the café were “familiar strangers”, those on the street were completely anonymous and therefore afforded a greater sense of privacy.

When asked the reason that they used WiFi, 58% indicated that they wanted to get out of their home or office. 27% replied that they wanted to get information when they were passing by and 23% wanted to see familiar people or be part of a community. These limited responses do not begin to account for the wide variety of reasons that respondents gave when prodded for more details about their reasons for using WiFi. For example, some emphasized that it was convenient to where they lived or worked saying, “I live in Harlem and work at Wall Street. I don't want to carry my laptop all over the city,” or “For work I regularly travel between Baltimore and Boston. Starbucks is ubiquitous and consistent.” Others mentioned that a friend lived nearby or that it was a central location for client meetings. Finally, a few mentioned that they liked accessing it from their car.

Some didn’t have or couldn’t afford Internet access at home. For example, one respondent said, “It's near where I am in the mornings and I can't get WiFi access at my house.” Others wrote that they used it because it was free and/or easy to use, explaining, “It's free. I'm in Manhattan frequently and my home office is in Brooklyn. It's the only way for freelancers to stay in touch. I can't afford a Blackberry or Treo.” Some were having problems with their regular Internet provider. Others were in-between meetings, traveling or waiting for something i.e. flight, train, or laundry. For example, one person wrote that they needed a place to work between two meetings, another wrote that before they got a high-speed cellular wireless card, they “would use these hotspots to check email in between meetings when away from the office,” another wrote that they used WiFi, “When I have time between work appointments (free time in my schedule and not enough time to go home).” Finally, some enjoyed the atmosphere/environment or liked the coffee and/or food at a particular location; and, finally, others wanted to relax or work while having breakfast or lunch (Hampton & Gupta, forthcoming).

In order to better understand the reasons that people use the wireless Internet, respondents were asked to answer open-ended questions on what they like about the wireless Internet. Freedom of movement to work in different places i.e. living room; mobility, portability and flexibility; and, the ability to work outdoors or remotely outside of the home and/or office were cited by nearly one third (29%) of respondents. For example, one person wrote: “I can sit anywhere in my room or apartment or even outside…I don't have to sit at my desk,” and “I depend on it. It makes working at home much more pleasant. When I've been on the road, I use open WiFi access points to keep in touch with friends and work.”

Others explain: “the ability to work from somewhere that isn't my home/office,” “the convenience of being able to get work done in a 'pastoral' setting” and “the location's beautiful…I can do work there instead of in the office or at home.” Another group of respondents, 28% of the total, stress the convenience of the wireless Internet; in particular, the lack of wires, cables and cords. They write: “[There are] no wires! I’m a nervous type…like to change positions location a lot. Additionally, I work from home so leaving the house while still being productive is a plus,” and “I can get onto the internet without having to plug into anything.” 23% of respondents reference connectivity, the ease of access to information and the ease of use. For example, one respondent writes: “the ability to access the wealth of information on the Internet wherever I am. I can always find the answer to a question.” 9% cite the widespread availability of the wireless Internet; 8% mention that it is (usually) free of charge; and, 5% say that it is fast.


Over the past year, in 2007, municipal wireless networks have struggled to identify appropriate business models, failed to create workable private-public partnerships and, as a result, a number of high-profile projects have been cancelled. As this paper illustrates, there is a disjuncture between the ways in which mobile and wireless technologies are represented in the mass media with the ways in which they are used. Both representations and uses make up the social construction of these technologies. I argue that there is a need to reframe debates around municipal wireless, which are currently plagued by overly technologically deterministic language referring to ubiquitous, anytime, anywhere connectivity.

Such language is misleading for policymakers, businesspeople and citizens because it envisions a top-down network infrastructure that may be cost-prohibitive and possibly even unnecessary. For example, a municipal wireless network is unlikely to cover every residential building without significant expense deploying equipment to repeat the signal inside these buildings. Furthermore, the materials from which buildings are made could interfere with the reception. However, upon hearing that their city will have a ubiquitous municipal wireless network, citizens may have an incorrect perception of the network’s coverage. Finally, this language assumes that place is irrelevant and homogeneous i.e. one place is just the same as any other place, and therefore ignores social needs and usage patterns. The empirical data presented above illustrates a myriad of reasons why people choose specific locations where they can access wireless networks. For example, one person liked Bryant Park because the chairs are comfortable, another because they can bring their kids along while they work.

By reframing debates around municipal wireless networks in line with user needs and behavior, it might be possible to envision different business models, partnerships and policies for these networks. Municipalities have been eager to adopt the same models as other cities such as Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston and Chicago. Instead, cities should consider their unique advantages, needs and cultures before embarking on projects to build municipal wireless networks. This might allow cities to plan network infrastructures that may not be ubiquitous but that focus on meaningful sites of everyday life rather than merely ‘anytime, anywhere’ connectivity. For example, a city might focus on public parks, churches, schools, cafes and other locations where people tend to congregate. However, it should be noted that these locations will vary substantially from city to city depending on political, economic, socio-cultural, environmental and architectural factors. A better understanding of the city’s potential users would allow the city to design networks, applications and services that could be tailored to the user’s needs. This bottom-up strategy might allow cities to avoid the current difficulties surrounding municipal wireless networks. In fact, in San Francisco, Meraki, a wireless networking company, is already implementing a bottom-up network built on users’ needs and specific demands.

In summary, making space for alternative business models, partnerships and policies requires the development of new conceptual frameworks. The current language of ubiquity and anytime, anywhere access is derived from computer science and related technical disciplines. Designing networks for people requires concepts that describe human behavior. While ubiquity and anytime, anywhere access may describe the technological promises, people’s needs and uses are located in specific places of meaning, culture and community.


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1See for more information. Accessed on May 9, 2007.

2It is interesting to note that this was a similar motivation (i.e. to obtain low cost access to the Internet) for many of those involved in the earlier development of Community Networks

3See for a more comprehensive list. Accessed on May 3, 2007.

4See for more information. Accessed on May 9, 2007.

5See for more information.

6See for more information.

7See for more information.

8See for more information.

9Questions on activities were adopted from the 2000 Pew Internet and American Life Project’s Daily Tracking Survey ( and by an earlier survey by Keith Hampton and Neeti Gupta developed in 2004.

10Questions on standard demographic variables were adopted from a February 2005 survey by Knowledge Networks ( Questions on occupation and industry were informed by the 2000 U.S. Census ( and New York City Economic Development Corporation (

11A recent search of the general news in all major newspapers using Lexis Nexis resulted in over 1800 articles of which 690 referred to mobile or wireless technology (see Figure 5).

12See for more details. Accessed on June 20, 2007.

13See for more details. Accessed on June 20, 2007.

The Journal of Community Informatics. ISSN: 1712-4441