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    Note to Google: Giving Free Internet Access to Rich People Is Not a Public Service

    Written by

    Brian Merchant

    Senior Editor

    Google has a public relations triumph on its hands in bringing free—free!—wifi to the blighted Manhattan neighborhood in Chelsea. Frequenters of upscale fashion boutiques, diners at posh restaurants, employees of the search giant's own New York branch, and the itinerant throng of tourists present at any given moment will finally garner access to that ever-elusive internet. Praise be; the press ate it up.

    It's true that a schools and a housing project will benefit, and a couple thousand lower-income residents will have free internet access. Which is nice. But we're hardly bridging the digital divide, here. Given the amount of attention heaped on Google for installing the "largest public wifi zone in New York," you'd think they were piping free fiber optic access into East New York or something.

    As such, you've got to hand it to the PR team for pumping this up:

    "This is about giving the internet, which is what gave us life, back to the community," Ben Fried, chief information officer for Google, said at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. A community of primarily wealthy New Yorkers and tech start-up folks, primarily: Spotify, Chartbeat, and Livestream are all within the free CIC bounds.

    Google is providing a service that will no doubt, in some small ways, make life more pleasant for thousands of people. But let's be serious about what this is—like the free wifi service it provides in Mountain View, California, it's primarily a boon to an already affluent pocket of society. Those who will be taking advantage of the service will be predominantly well-off iPhone wielders who use the signal as a step-up from their 3G. It will now be quicker and easier to check email while you're waiting in line for an espresso. It will boost the prestige of the neighborhood, and it will encourage Chelseans to use Google more.

    Download speeds are going to be significantly slower than the area's typical Time Warner connection, so it's unlikely that many will switch over and rely on the service. Remember, this is Chelsea: most of the people receiving the newfangled access are rich. Instead, it's a reputation booster; a move to further the association between Google and the cutting edge, and to expand the company's influence in the city.

    It is, in other words, a sound business move on Google's behalf—not a major public service. The 5,000 students and 2,000 residents of the Fulton Houses who benefit are not the primary recipients of the maneuver; they're icing on the cake.

    I mean, there's not even a park or solid public place to congregate in the free wifi zone. I guess you could take your laptop to the basketball courts.

    Watching the press spectacle unfold yesterday, I couldn't shake the sense that Google was basking in a halo of acclaim for solving a problem that didn't exist. Or at least was among the least urgent possible. There are neighborhoods all over New York that could seriously use better and cheaper internet acces—Chelsea is close to last on that list.

    Google just grew its influence in municipal politics, increased its market share, endeared itself to a trendsetting neighborhood, and improved its reputation nationwide—then got everyone to thank them for it.