Testing Out Subway Wi-Fi: How Well Does the Free Internet in the Chelsea Stations Work?

Written by NYPress on . Posted in NY Press Exclusive.


Photo courtesy of Wiki Commons.

By Paul Bisceglio

Boingo Wireless teamed up with Google Offers this week to launch free wireless internet in six Chelsea subway stations. According to the New York Times, Google will foot the bill for the service this summer until September 7, after which Boingo expects to find other sponsorships to keep the underground Wi-Fi free. Boingo aims to cover 36 subway stations with its wireless service by the end of the year, and 270 stations in five years, which sounds like a cause for celebration for corporate rank climbing workaholics, blog addicts and nypress.com readers alike. Before we pop the Youtube video of champagne, though, we have to ask: does it work?

With laptop in backpack, I jogged downtown yesterday evening and hopped into each of the six stations to test things out. At every stop, I opened an article on nypress.com, logged into my e-mail (Gmail), searched for the location of the station on Google Maps and watched the HD music video for “Call Me Maybe” – pretty much everything I’d do with internet on a normal commute. Then, I made up some categories and rated them in wireless service bars (like the ones on the bottom right of your computer screen, 0 = bad, 5 = good), including the actual number of service bars themselves. Check out the results below.

(Note: 1. I used a 2010 Samsung Notebook that has slowed down with age, so my evaluations do not reflect the performances of today’s fastest computers, I-pads, I-phones, Androids, etc.; 2. I sat by the underground gates at each station but never paid to enter, so results may vary when you are right next to the tracks.)

C, E Station at Eigth Avenue & 23rd Street

Service Bars: 3-4 bars
Seating Availability: 2 bars
Lighting: 2 bars
Cleanliness: 2 bars
Ambiance: 1 bar

Static sights like nypress.com were easy to navigate here, but once I started piling on the tabs and blasting the Carly Rae Jepsen things started to stop and stutter. If I ever get locked in this station with my laptop for a day (and manage to find an outlet), catching up on American Ninja Warrior on Hulu is going to be a pain in the ass. This station was no smellier than a usual one, but boring white walls, cramped space, dim lighting and sparse benches along the track made it less than ideal for relaxed web browsing.

A, C, E Station + L Station at Eighth Avenue and 14th Street

Service Bars: 3 bars
Seating Availability: 4 bars
Lighting: 5 bars
Cleanliness: 4 bars
Ambiance: 4 bar

Oddly clean and exceptionally bright, these two connected stations had it all — except for decent wireless service. Getting serenaded by an elderly a cappella group helped me almost tolerate Google Maps’ pixel by pixel loading, so I hope that service improves just enough once you go down to the tracks to make surfing the web at this station actually enjoyable.

1, 2, 3 Station + F, M, L Station at Seventh Avenue and 14th Street

Service Bars: 5 bars
Seating Availability: 3 bars
Lighting: 5 bars
Cleanliness: 2 bars
Ambiance: 4 bar

Good service and good lighting at this one, though a lot grimier than the previous. Outside the gates the hallways are crowded and have no seats, but alongside the tracks there is decent space and a number of benches. I sat outside the gates on a green Greenline: A Textron Company storage bin and no one seemed to mind. Hummed along to a Steel Drum band’s rendition of “Eight Days a Week” while zipping through my e-mail.

1, 2, 3 Station + F, M, L Station at Sixth Avenue and 14th Street

Service Bars: 0-5 bars
Seating Availability: 1 bar
Lighting: 2 bars
Cleanliness: 2 bars
Ambiance: 1 bar

This is a strange, circular shaped set of stations with both local trains and PATH trains to New Jersey. It’s cramped and dingy, and has a very limited wireless range: I found no signal at all when in one corner, then a full set just down the hall next to the ticket / information box. With nowhere to sit, I crouched against the wall to browse, and got accosted by a homeless dude for holding a piece of paper in my mouth as I typed.  He claimed it was “not rational behavior.” The paper in my mouth, I disagree — I had nowhere else to put it. Spending piles of money to blanket the city’s underground with wireless so that we all can spend 20 more minutes each day in front of a screen, on the other hand — well I’m not so sure.

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