What’s the Future of NYC’s Payphones?

payphone-wirelessOne of the truest old saws about New York is that the city is a palimpsest, continually erasing and rewriting itself. Because the city is several islands, its expansion is delimited by geography, and so the old constantly bustles up against the new, until it is made new itself. The city reconfigures its infrastructure like a snake shedding skin, in ways uncommon and rote: warehouses become lofts, elevated train lines become public parks, factories become artisanal incubators.

There’s a least one bygone remnant we haven’t yet creatively repurposed, though (OK, there are many more): payphones. Ideas about what to do with the city’s roughly 11,000 mostly-useless payphones have been bandied about for years, the most realistic and useful of which usually involved transforming them into WiFi hotspots, amongst other uses. In 2013, Mayor Bloomberg launched the Reinvent Payphones Design Challenge, which asked designers, students, technologists—anyone with an idea, really—for proposals that the city would consider once vendor agreements expired in 2014. The proposals were merely conceptual, though, intended to foster ideas—they were never meant to be implemented.

In May of this year, the city’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications issued another request for proposals. This time, the city was serious about doing something with the designs. There were a couple of stipulations: each proposal must include free, 24/7 WiFi service with an 85-foot minimum radius, as well as maintain actual phone service with the ability to place free calls to 911 and 311. The department’s fact sheet included suggestions for other services, as well, including free limited-duration local calls, text messaging capabilities, cell phone charging stations, touch screens that provide information or “facilitate business transactions,” and solar panels.

The idea, one city spokesperson told the New York Times, is to “level the playing field” for New Yorkers who can’t afford broadband. It’s also a way to make street-level advertising more lucrative for the city; if more people use payphone stations, the ad space is more valuable. The city projects at least $17.5 million in annual ad revenue.

Many of us have computers in our pockets; payphones, as a civic good, seem quaint now. But they are democratizing, and at times are unexpectedly useful: say, when your cell phone dies, or when a hurricane takes out the electrical power in lower Manhattan. Because public payphones receive electricity via the phone line and not external power sources, these revamped stations would provide the city with WiFi and access to emergency services, even if another electricity-depleting catastrophe befalls us (likely).

Today is the final day for companies and individuals to submit ideas to the DoITT. Although the city won’t reveal who’s submitted bids, over sixty firms expressed interest at the information session in May, among them Google, Samsung, and IBM, according to WNYC. The winning bid will be announced in the fall.

Follow Phillip Pantuso on Twitter @phillippantuso.

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