New York City

NYC approves plans to replace payphones with free Wi-Fi hotspots

LinkNYC rollout includes 586 super-fast kiosks in Brooklyn

December 11, 2014 By Mary Frost Brooklyn Daily Eagle
A city committee approved a contract to replace NYC’s payphones with free Wi-Fi kiosks. The LinkNYC device shown above is the superfast ad-supported model, meant for commercial neighborhoods. Rendering courtesy of CityBridge
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A city committee approved on Wednesday a 12-year contract which would replace New York City’s sidewalk payphones with free Wi-Fi hot spots.

The city’s Franchise and Concession Review Committee unanimously approved the proposal to install the sleek aluminum Wi-Fi kiosks across the city.

Besides Wi-Fi, the kiosks will provide free U.S. phone calls on your cell phone, device charging stations and (in commercial districts only) “intelligent” advertising displays.

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The construction of the network will begin in 2015; roughly 500 kiosks will be installed the first year.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has been a vocal proponent of the plan, put together by a public-private partnership called LinkNYC.

“With the approval of our LinkNYC proposal to expand free, high-speed Internet access to New Yorkers across the five boroughs, we will not only transform outdated payphone infrastructure into cutting-edge Wi-Fi hotspots, but dramatically increase fast broadband reach in more neighborhoods citywide,” he said in a statement Wednesday.

De Blasio called the $200 million system “historic” and “a game-changer” that would bring new jobs and a guaranteed revenue of $500 million over the next 12 years, at no cost to taxpayers. The city says the program will also generate more than 100 full-time jobs and around 650 support jobs.

The vote came after negotiations between LinkNYC and city officials who pushed for more equitable distribution of the kiosks.

‘Took a good contract and made it better’

 On Dec. 3, NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer and the city’s borough presidents issued a statement saying they were concerned that the plan would create a two-tier system – one for rich neighborhoods and one for poor.

The LinkNYC system is funded by advertising revenue. As originally proposed, ad-supported kiosks in wealthy neighborhoods, mostly in Manhattan, would average super-fast Internet speeds of 1 gigabit — ten times faster than kiosks in most locations in the other boroughs.

This disparity fed into concerns Stringer has expressed about unequal access to the Internet across New York City, as described in a Dec. 7 report.

Over the past week, the city negotiated with concerned officials behind the scenes. Stringer and the borough presidents said following the vote that they were satisfied that the negotiations resulted in a better deal for residents.

“We took a good contract and we made it better,” Stringer said. “I want to thank the administration and borough presidents for their diligence and responsiveness in working to make this contract the best that it can be.”

The plan was improved by the negotiations in several ways, the Comptroller’s Office said.

Addressing the concerns of the borough presidents, there will be a more balanced distribution of 1 gigabit speeds throughout the city.

Other improvements include the requirement to have community consultation on the siting of kiosks; stronger language requiring system administrators to keep up with security and software upgrades; and a provision for the regular publication of data to ensure accountability, transparency and performance.

Stringer said his office would use his office’s contract oversight and audit authority to keep tabs on the rollout.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams said in a statement that the BP’s voices were heard. “This is a deal I can be proud to support.”

“Through negotiation with City Hall and DoITT (Department of Information Technology), as well as the important collaboration between all five borough presidents, we have arrived at a stronger agreement that will better ensure equity in the expansion of free municipal WiFi,” he said.

Contract updates

Sources told the Eagle that the contract now references a memorandum of understanding between NYC DoITT and the borough presidents that lays out how consultations will work between the city, borough presidents, community boards and BIDs.

The negotiated deal increases the number of ad-supported 1 gigabit kiosks across the city. A spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office told the Brooklyn Eagle that 586 of the blazing-fast kiosks will be installed in Brooklyn by the end of year four.

The Bronx will receive 481 of the 1 gigabit kiosks, Queens will get 675, and Staten Island will receive 33. Manhattan will still receive the lion’s share, with 2,195 1 gigabit kiosks planned, according to the Mayor’s Office.

In addition, the negotiations bumped up the number of the the slower, non-ad-supported (100 megabit) kiosks headed to the city. Roughly 400 of these are headed to Manhattan and 154 to Staten Island.

A source told the Eagle that another 73 will be installed in Brooklyn, 251 in the Bronx and 32 in Queens as a result of the negotiations.

Privacy concerns

LinkNYC’s private partners — the CityBridge consortium — include Titan (the advertising company that maintains most of the city’s pay phones), Control Group (which built the city’s interactive subway kiosks), Qualcomm, Comark, Transit Wireless and Antenna Design.

Some advocates worry about user privacy. LinkNYC says on its website that its ad-supported models will provide “insight-driven and intelligently programmed advertising.”

International Business Times reports that LinkNYC’s privacy policy allows it to “share data with advertisers and use it to serve relevant ads,” and that it is capable of collecting massive amounts of user data.

The consortium says on their website, however, that the network is encrypted, and it “will never share or sell any protected personal information.”

The actions of consortium member Titan may give some users pause, however. In October, BuzzFeed broke the news that the company had hidden about 500 transmitters in Manhattan phone booths that were tracking smartphone users’ every move.

Hours after the report, Mayor de Blasio ordered the company to remove the trackers.


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