NYC payphones get revived as touch-screen tablets

A pilot program to transform dinosaurian payphones into large Internet-connected "Smart Screens" throughout New York City officially goes live.

Dara Kerr Former senior reporter
Dara Kerr was a senior reporter for CNET covering the on-demand economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado, went to school in New York City and can never remember how to pronounce gif.
Dara Kerr
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Smart Screens are now officially live in New York City. Cisco

Payphones are a dying breed, which will probably make some people yearn for our simple past and others celebrate our tech-filled future.

New York City and two companies, Cisco Systems and City 24/7, announced today that they're officially commencing their plan to transform those endangered species into 32-inch touch-screen information kiosks, a.k.a. "Smart Screens," around the city, according to GigaOM.

The idea was originally introduced in April and the companies have been testing the pilot project over the last few months. Now, the Smart Screens are officially live and a handful of kiosks are already up and running.

"Right now our plan is to have 10 touch screens around Union Square in the coming weeks," Tom Touchet, CEO of City 24/7, told NBC News, "adding a few more at a time as we go along."

The Smart Screens are wired with Internet access and provide information on city goings-on. They are free to access and generate revenue via local advertising. People can use the tablets to get information on local restaurants, nearby stores, tourist attractions, and traffic updates. The booths also provide access to the city's 311 complaint and information line and offer safety alerts. All of this is available in multiple languages.

"This information is displayed on durable, yet easy-to-use Smart Screens that replace unused and often outdated public furniture such as pay phones located at bus stops, train stations, major entryways, shopping malls, and sports facilities," Cisco wrote in a statement (pdf).

The plan is to erect a total of 250 kiosks in old phone booths throughout the five boroughs -- from the Upper East Side to Sunny Side to Brooklyn Heights. The installations should be complete in the beginning of 2013, according to GigaOM. The end-goal is for the city to eventually replace all of its 12,800 outdoor pay phones.

For those worried about the unsanitary nature of sharing such screens with millions of people, City24x7 said that the new touch screens will be even more sanitary than an ATM. The company said the devices will be dust-proof and waterproof and will be able to be cleaned with a jet hose.

This isn't New York City's only innovative use for old phone booths. In July, city officials announced that they were starting a pilot program to transform payphones into free unlimited Wi-Fi kiosks. Initially, 10 locations in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens are scheduled to get the service and more hotspots will be added in the future.