Limited free Wi-Fi to be available at NY area airports

George Zelcs, who flew into LaGuardia Airport from

George Zelcs, who flew into LaGuardia Airport from Chicago, is on his computer for business. (Credit: Uli Seit)

Travelers at Kennedy, LaGuardia, Newark and Stewart airports will be able to get a half hour of free wireless Internet access by the end of the year, the Port Authority said Wednesday.

"Our airports were among the few in America and the world that didn't have this 21st century amenity," Steve Sigmund, executive director of Global Gateway Alliance, said after the authority board approved an amended contract with the wireless provider.

The alliance, a coalition of public officials and corporate, union and civic groups that pushes for modernizing area airports, said 15 major airports offer free Wi-Fi, but none are in the New York area.

Port Authority board member William Schuber said at an agency committee meeting before the full board voted that the improvement in Internet access was "modest," adding: "It's a good start, I think."

In 1999 the bistate agency entered into a 15-year contract -- with an option for an additional 10 years -- with Concourse Communications that allowed the firm to charge airport users an hourly Wi-Fi fee of $4.95 or $7.95 for a full day. Under the new contract, users get 30 minutes free and can purchase additional time in hourly, daily or monthly increments.

The company splits revenue with the Port Authority, generating a bit less than $8 million for the agency last year, a port official said.

Concourse was acquired in 2006 by Boingo Wireless Inc., and the new contract is with New York Telecom Partners, a subsidiary of Boingo. Boingo said in a statement Wednesday airport users will get "free, ad-supported basic Wi-Fi access as well as premium options for power users." The authority will foot the bill for $3.8 million in upgrades by Boingo by allowing the company to deduct the cost from its annual payments over three years.

Sigmund said the authority had "a limited negotiating position" because the option to extend the contract was at the discretion of Boingo. He called the original contract "the product of a bygone era."

Pat Foye, executive director of the authority, said the change is part of a renewed emphasis on customer service. "We've worked hard with Boingo to make changes that will significantly improve our customers' experience at our airports."

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