Manhattan prepares for a future of al fresco internet browsing

Denizens of New York who already know Java and cookies do not just come from Starbucks will soon be able to flip open their laptops at almost any street corner, bus shelter or park bench and connect wirelessly to the internet for al fresco browsing.

This is the "hot-Apple" future as foreseen by an agreement signed this week between the city and six telecommunications companies that plan to equip 18,000 lampposts with tiny antennae to ensure the metropolis has almost blanket coverage for cell-phone reception and wireless connectivity.

The deal is a boon for the city budget, with the companies paying fees of up to $25m (£13.7m) a year. Critics say it will also ensure city residents are bathed night and day in harmful radiation with uncertain consequences for their health. "Apparently, the city is willing to gamble with the health of its residents for $25m," Peter Vallone of the city council said. "No study has looked at the cumulative effect of these transmitters." He wants the companies to pay for roaming radiation inspectors.

But for the four million New Yorkers addicted to their cellphones, the deal will come as a relief. In spite of efforts to pop transmitters on high buildings and towers across the five boroughs, there remain many dead zones where reception suddenly falters, or vanishes. Start a conversation on one corner and a block later the line may be dead.

The companies expect those reception problems, exacerbated in Manhattan where tall buildings interfere with the signal, to vanish once the lamppost antennae are in place. Almost as appealing will be the transformation of large sections into "hot-spots" where users of laptops will be able to access the internet wirelessly and browse at broadband speed.

Today, hot-spot zones are mostly found only in a few buildings although all of Bryant Park, a popular oasis of green behind the New York Library, already has the antennae for wireless users.

City officials insist health concerns are overblown. "These devices all fall well below the Federal Communications Commission exposure guidelines," Gino Menchini, the commissioner for information technology, told the New York Post . "The radiation from a microwave oven exceeds by 100 times the emissions from these antennae."

The consortium will pay $250 a year for every lamppost used in Manhattan and $50 a pole for the four outer boroughs.

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