From Phone Booths to Hot Spots

Susan Crawford
Nov 19, 2014 · Unlisted

Say goodbye to the almost 10,000 pay phones of New York City. They’re going to be replaced over the next four years by sleek nine-foot-tall structures the city calls Links.

Every Link will be attached to fiber optic lines under the city streets. When the system is completely built out four years from now, Links spaced about a block apart will provide a cloud of gigabit-speed wifi access — a hundred times faster than the average public wifi now available elsewhere — over the entire city. For free.

Commercial and residential Link prototype.

Check the date—this is not an April Fool’s joke. Yes, I know that sounds too good to be true. But I have reason to believe that this project will work out. Because it has to. First, the city is seizing the opportunity hidden in the challenge of its full-of-potential yet decaying pay phones, which, though past their prime, are conveniently powered by electricity and connected to communications lines. Even more important, however, may be the simple fact that New York City is way past due for a technological upgrade. Without this wifi move—or something like it—the city will cease to be a global contender.

New York City has its Broadway shows, its Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, and its artisanal Brooklyn-made cheese, but when it comes to connectivity America’s metropolis is more like a goat pasture.

Tourists coming from Stockholm or Seoul are often stunned by the faint or nonexistent signals in the city’s streets for phone calls and Web sessions. Visitors aren’t the only ones shocked by how bad things are when it comes to Internet access: New Yorkers pay ten times more than people in Seoul and Tokyo do for access that is half as good; about a third of households don’t have high-speed Internet access at all; and in households with incomes of $35,000 or less, the figure is closer to fifty percent. My beloved dry cleaner’s (Jerry’s, on Sixth Avenue just north of 10th St., hello, Lou!) has been struggling for years to maintain a reliable connection for running credit card payments. Calls drop, business stops. To date the city’s response to this crushing issue has been to wave its hands and say, “Look up! We have Times Square!”

The city’s charm will not be enough to make up for failing to reliably function in the electronic age. So when the de Blasio administration announced on Monday a plan to build the world’s fastest free municipal wifi system in the world, it took a major step towards adding New York to the ranks of technologically advanced cities.

About a year ago, I went to one of those cities—Seoul, in South Korea—to see what life was like in a city with connectivity. On the streets, people milled around tall, slim, sparkling kiosks, tapping the tower for information and having it take pictures of them. The Links will be similar to these media kiosks. Each one will have an Android tablet, a speaker and microphone for calls, a cell phone charger and a broad ad display. Anyone will be able to make a free phone call to anywhere in the country or to 911/311 services. By easing access to public services through the Link’s tablet, city employees can respond more quickly to residents’ needs. The wide LED display will be available for location-specific public service announcements (“where is that neighborhood meeting?”) as well as advertising.

People in Seoul line up to use the media kiosk. Photo by David / Flickr.

I know, I know… I’ve had my heart broken many times when it comes to big, bold government tech initiatives—haven’t we all?—but this time I’m convinced the city can make this happen. A crack team behind the walls of City Hall is working with a consortium of private companies (Comark will build the Links, the Control Group is responsible for user experience, and Qualcomm is helping on the wireless side) to carry out a four-year plan. The first year is devoted to fabricating the Links, in a New York City factory, and testing them. The privacy policies to be adopted by the city will also get thorough consideration—an issue I’ve been following closely in conversations with the team. In 2015, teams will discuss what sensors to attach to the Links to help the city monitor its environmental health, such as pollution and noises levels, as well as to aid public safety efforts.

The city says the initiative will be fully funded through an anticipated $500 million in ad revenue over the next twelve years—so you can expect those displays to gleam at us insistently.

The city hopes that micro-local advertising could help nearby businesses; though I wonder whether that level of targeting will actually happen, I’m willing to believe the city’s intentions are good. Minerva Tantoco, New York City’s first chief technology officer, proclaims that the “announcement showcases the power of government—and the power of public-private partnerships—to improve everyday life, to empower New Yorkers and equalize through technology.” And she’s proud that the plan has its technical feet solidly in New York City: “LinkNYC is an initiative that could only be made in New York—it harnesses the latest technologies and it is a true partnership of the world’s leaders in technology, telecommunications, advertising and design.”

Street-level retail establishments might be among LinkNYC’s greatest beneficiaries, as they will be able to capitalize on access to free public wifi.

And the towers promise to help the city close its digital divide. Moreover, the locally manufactured Link kiosk could be built for cities around the world; in addition to the hardware, the community planning process the city intends to use for additions to the Link’s modules and sensors could be widely adopted as models of civic engagement.

Link prototype with commercial use in Queens.
Link prototype for residential areas in Brooklyn.

Building on years of planning by the Bloomberg administration, the LinkNYC plan aims to avoid vendor lock-in and involve the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), the agency that runs the subways. This step is crucial, as the MTA has been notoriously slow to adopt new initiatives even though its existing tunnels could provide the essential ingredient for city-wide fiber. Notably, its twenty-five year exclusive agreement with Transit Wireless to provide wireless connectivity in the subways was particularly brain-dead—we can connect, breathlessly, for the few instants we’re right at a subway stop, but the lack of fiber connection in the tunnels means that the already poor signal fades as soon as the door closes and the train pulls away. In Tokyo and Seoul, meanwhile, people on the subway are watching TV on their phones.

The city is doing its best to make lemons out of lemonade: Transit Wireless will be responsible for building out the fiber connections to the Links. And the LinkNYC agreement is nonexclusive in nature, meaning that other vendors can get involved. Hopes are high that someday fiber will spread through the subway arteries that tie the city together.

To its credit, the de Blasio administration has also thought through the privacy implications of its Links: if you’re just walking by a Link, and not logged in to the city network, your device will not be tracked, and traffic over the city network will be encrypted by default. The city is walking a fine line between concerns about privacy and its open data commitments—New York has the strongest open data law in the nation— and there will be much to discuss along these lines in the years to come.

For now, though, I’m willing to be delighted by the plan. New York City is a remarkable, thriving, energetic and exuberant place. Now it is taking steps to add an electronic layer to its beguiling sidewalks. Just duck into (next to!) the nearest phone booth—and your smartphone will take on super powers.

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