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New York's Old Payphones Are About To Pump Out Free Public Wi-Fi

The LinkNYC project is promising to turn old urban infrastructure into fast, free public Internet for anyone on the New York streets.

  • <p>The city Link stations are kiosks that will replace old payphones with free one gigabit wi-fi.</p>
  • <p>They'll also provide free domestic calling, Internet browsing, and USB charging.</p>
  • <p>The LinkNYC project, run by a consortium of companies and private investors called CityBridge, will be the largest and fastest public Wi-Fi network in the world.</p>
  • <p>One of the most interesting things about the Links is what will be done with the data they collect. The privacy policy is relatively strict.</p>
  • 01 /04

    The city Link stations are kiosks that will replace old payphones with free one gigabit wi-fi.

  • 02 /04

    They'll also provide free domestic calling, Internet browsing, and USB charging.

  • 03 /04

    The LinkNYC project, run by a consortium of companies and private investors called CityBridge, will be the largest and fastest public Wi-Fi network in the world.

  • 04 /04

    One of the most interesting things about the Links is what will be done with the data they collect. The privacy policy is relatively strict.

New Yorkers, say goodbye to dirty unused pay phones and hello to super-fast, free Wi-Fi.

Today is the long-awaited unveiling of the city’s first Link stations, the kiosks that will replace the old phones with not only free one gigabit Wi-Fi, but also free domestic calling, Internet browsing, and USB charging. The first two will be located on Manhattan's Third Avenue in the East Village.

The LinkNYC project, run by a private consortium called CityBridge, is billed as "the largest and fastest public Wi-Fi network in the world." The advertising-supported model could eventually be expanded to other cities. It is a massive infrastructure undertaking, involving the installation of hundreds of miles of fiber optic line under city streets.

Today, one in four New Yorkers don’t have broadband speed home Internet, so when it completely rolled out, LinkNYC will help bridge the so-called "digital divide."

"It’s going to transform the streets and transform people’s ability to access information," says Colin O’Donnell, chief innovation officer for Intersection, a company run by Google’s Sidewalk Labs, an "incubator" that aims to solve urban problems through technology, and one of the leaders of the consortium.

The Links don’t look anything like pay phones. They are imposing, slim structures, about the height of a bus stop and as rugged as a screen device can get. There are no horizontal surfaces where someone could leave, say, a Coke can.

Once they sign up, people will be able to connect to the Links as they pass them on the street, and in some areas of the city, the units may be as dense as every 150 feet. Residents and businesses near stations may be able to replace their regular Internet connection with the public network (there’s no time limit or data cap, and each kiosk is supposed to have a range similar to regular Wi-Fi, reaching about 400 feet with at least broadband speeds). Some may find they're able to lower their monthly wireless bills because they use less of their mobile data plan.

LinkNYC is estimated to cost more than $200 million—but it won’t be funded by taxpayers. Instead, private investors will provide initial capital and ad space on the sides of the kiosks will pay ongoing costs. Over time, the advertising business model is expected to generate at least $500 million for the city over the first 12 years (or 50% of its total revenue, whichever is higher). Still, the consortium's aim, says O'Donnell, was a good user experience: People will only see kiosk ads, not ads on the network itself.

Today's public pay phone locations.

In addition to Wi-Fi, each kiosk will feature an Android tablet, a 911 call button, two USB charging ports, a headphone jack, and a microphone. It will also offer opt-in location services that will likely be more accurate than GPS (and potentially could help visually-impaired users navigate the city). More apps and services are expected as the project expands.

With all of this connectivity, the Links will also be collecting lots of data. While its privacy policy is relatively strict—CityBridge says it won’t share or sell personally-identifiable data with third parties—it will use the aggregated, anonymous data about users to target ads. Security will be similar to any open Wi-Fi network, but for people with recent hardware, browsing on an encrypted network will be an option. It is still developing a policy on how long it will retain data from the three video cameras that will be attached to each Link.

The roll-out will be "aggressive," says O’Donnell, with 500 structures distributed among all five boroughs to be installed by this summer and 4,500 within the first four years. Ultimately, there will be 7,500 units—but the effort has faced some criticism for focusing more on Manhattan than outer-borough neighborhoods.

Will New York City one day have gigabit speed public Internet at home, too? Some cities have built such networks, but they often face stiff opposition from telecommunications companies. O’Donnell says the consortium could someday consider connecting the fiber network to buildings, but that would be far more expensive and right now it is solely focused on mobile Internet.

For the immediate future, the Wi-Fi on the first two stations should be turned on by mid-January.

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