Pay Phones Are Out, WiFi Is In

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In May, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration requested proposals to repurpose the city’s derelict payphones. There were only two stipulations: all redesigns must maintain actual phone service, with the ability to place free calls to 911 and 311, and include free WiFi with at least an 85-foot radius.

Yesterday, city officials announced their winner: CityBridge, a consortium of tech, media, and communication companies which includes Qualcomm and Titan (you may remember Titan as the company that secretly installed beacons in some midtown payphones last year). Beginning next year, the city’s payphones will be converted to WiFi hotspots that provide free Internet access, free domestic calls using cellphones or a built-in keypad, touch screen access to city services and information, and charging stations for mobile devices. In its first year, the contract is expected to bring $20 million in revenue to New York City.

This isn’t a simple installation. CityBridge will replace the city’s existing payphone network with 10,000 new stations, across all five boroughs, called LinkNYC, or “Links.” The tall, slender kiosks—which DNAinfo describes will “look like giant, sleek aluminum thumb drives plugged into the sidewalk”—will provide WiFi at speeds up to 100 times faster than the average municipal WiFi network, according to the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications. Maybe best of all, the system will not require users to log in and out in order to use it. It’s estimated that a single Link may serve up to 250 people at a time, and their range will extend 150 feet in any direction. Wonder if prices for apartments near Links will go up?

For phone calls, users dial on the touch screen and communicate via multi-directional microphones—there will be no handsets, but you can plug headphones in for additional privacy. 911, 311, and all domestic calls will be free. In a statement, Mayor de Blasio said the system would be  “the fastest and largest municipal Wi-Fi network in the world.”

This all seems progressive and smart, and the kind of creative repurposing of outmoded infrastructure that New York does so well. But there are a few key concerns: will the uncovered Links be rendered practically useless any time it rains or snows? Does placing responsibility for all aspects of the project with a single enterprise constitute a potentially corruptible “monopolistic arrangement,” as Letitia James, the city’s public advocate, told the Times yesterday?

And what about privacy and security? Each call made from a Link is essentially public; the extent of its publicness is minimized only by the use of headphones or attention to volume. And when it comes to, uh, not spying, neither the city nor CityBridge have the best track record. To preempt privacy concerns, city officials said yesterday that the DoITT and CityBridge would “never share or sell any protected personal information,” collecting only anonymized aggregate data in order to guide advertising.

The estimated cost of building the network is $200 million, although reportedly there will be no additional cost to taxpayers. For old times’ sake, CityBridge will maintain three old payphone kiosks on West End Avenue, in homage to “living New York City history.” Maybe we can turn them into tiny parks.

Follow Phillip Pantuso on Twitter @phillippantuso.

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