A Tale of 3 Smart Cities: How and Why Cities Are Offering Free Wi-Fi

May 24, 2017 by Chantelle Dubois

In this article, we take a look at how free Wi-Fi is being implemented and maintained in smart cities across the world.

Free Wi-Fi is becoming an essential part of smart city infrastructure. In this article, we take a look at how free Wi-Fi is being implemented and maintained in smart cities across the world and what benefits it can bring.

In 2014, Mayor de Blasio of New York City appointed Minerva Tantoco as NYC’s first Chief Technology Officer. This role may seem unusual for a municipal office but, for de Blasio’s vision of NYC’s future, it made perfect sense. Tantoco’s expertise and decades-long experiences in industry would be used to leverage technology, increase innovation, and improve the lives of everyday New Yorkers.


Making Cities "Smart"

The concept of the “smart city” is clearly becoming a more important and prominent concept in modern metropolises. Many other cities across the world have also appointed CTOs in their administrations, including Kansas City, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and in 2016, London, UK.

While there are many elements that work together to make a city “smart”, free Wi-Fi access is a prominent method of modernization that will surely be emulated by other cities in the near future.

In the context of a smart city, free Internet access provides more opportunities for both city administrators and citizens. Widely available Wi-Fi access will springboard an even more prevalent use of Internet of Things applications: data collection. A reliable network within a city also enables more innovative use of its services. The city can use data on how its services are used to become more efficient and streamlined.

Socially, individuals who may not otherwise have reliable access to online services will now be able to go online for free for education, job searches, or to communicate. The ability to access online resources will become increasingly important in bridging inequality gaps between socioeconomic groups as more business takes place online.

When implementing free Wi-Fi or Internet services, there are many questions. Who pays for it? How is it maintained? How will its bandwidth accommodate all users? 

Here are a few examples of some cities implementing free Wi-Fi, and the ways in which they have overcome the aforementioned challenges.

New York City

In New York City, LinkNYC is a fairly straight-forward concept. Over 7,500 payphone booths throughout NYC have been replaced by sleek, futuristic stands which provide free Wi-Fi, information on city services including maps, a free Vonage phone, and USB-charging for devices. Considering that publicly-accessible power is a plight of the modern day technology user, this change is surely welcome.

LinkNYC is able to provide its services for free thanks to advertising on digital displays, so it isn’t funded by taxpayers. In fact, it is reported on the LinkNYC website that the service will even generate revenue for the city, making it an even more valuable resource to the city and its inhabitants.

The high-speed, gigabit Wi-Fi (802.11ac, or “5G Wi-Fi”) has a range of 150 feet and enables users to connect using a secure SSL network. Alternatively, a key can be downloaded to enable the use of a private, more secure network for some select devices.

For USB charging, all stations have “power only” outlets to ensure there is no data exchanged between the station and user devices. This keeps users safe from any harmful tampering and provides more peace of mind when using LinkNYC.


A LinkNYC terminal with advertising panels. Image courtesy of LinkNYC.


These stations not only help a city that never sleeps to keep its citizens on the move through constant communication and information exchange, it also enables individuals who may not otherwise have access to phone or Internet service the freedom to make calls or access specific online content.

It's worth mentioning that the kiosks, themselves, no longer offer unlimited web surfing. After several reports of abuse (e.g., groups gathering to watch movies and individuals watching porn), the city disabled web browsing. The kiosks still act as information hubs, however, offering access to online city resources.

LinkNYC is the brainchild of CityBridge, a collection of companies and organizations working together to provide improved user experiences and connectivity with advertising and marketing potential. Involved are Qualcomm, Intersection, and CIVIQ Smartscapes.

Kansas City

Go a little further west and you have Kansas City, one of the world’s smartest cities. With a population of less than half a million (compared to NYC’s approximately 8.5 million), it's regularly on the cutting edge of technology, innovation, and connectivity, often referred to a “living lab” for new smart city technologies.

Kansas City was the first city to offer Google Fiber Internet to its residences and has installed responsive LED street lights. City officials have plans to implement traffic responsive lights and offer free public Wi-Fi in its downtown. On top of all of that, Kansas City was also top 8 in the US Department of Transportation Smart City Challenge, competing for grant money for further smart city infrastructure.

In Kansas City, its free Wi-Fi is a partnership with Sprint which will maintain and manage the network, relieving taxpayers of the cost. With publicly accessible Internet, the city has even adopted a Data Privacy policy in order to protect and properly handle user data.


A kiosk in Kansas City, one of the most innovative cities in the USA. Image courtesy of Cisco.


Other major technology partners are also investing in Kansas City’s smart infrastructure, including Cisco and Think Big Partners. Currently, a “smart corridor” is being equipped with digital kiosks, sensors, and smart parking, integrating with city services such as transit or emergency alerts. All data collected by the use of various services in the smart corridor will help city planners make better decisions on how and where other services are offered, as well as how to make the city even more efficient and smarter.


Go to the other side of the Alantic and you have Barcelona, one of the most innovative smart cities in the world. There are over 1,000 access points spread across the city to provide free Wi-Fi, including at outdoor facilities and on buses. While the service is free to all residents and visitors, the only stipulation is that there is a data speed cap when the Wi-Fi is outdoors (256 kbps). Indoors, there are no speed limitations.

The service is provided in a private-public partnership with Aptilo Networks, which manages and distributes the access points. 

Spain faced economic difficulties in the 2000s and, in response, began utilizing sensor and IoT applications to increase the efficiency of Barcelona city services. An investment in the city’s smart capabilities has saved Barcelona millions by providing more useful data for more efficient delivery of services, providing opportunities for economic growth for citizens, and better connecting the city as a whole.


Barcelona smart city infograph. Image courtesy of Barcinno.

Live in a smart city? Worked on smart city projects? Let us know your experiences in the comments!


Feature image courtesy of Veriday.