In NYC, once a payphone, soon a superfast Wi-Fi hub

As part of the $200 million project, the first new hubs are expected to come online in late 2015.

Ben Fox Rubin Former senior reporter
Ben Fox Rubin was a senior reporter for CNET News in Manhattan, reporting on Amazon, e-commerce and mobile payments. He previously worked as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and got his start at newspapers in New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Ben Fox Rubin
4 min read

A conceptual image of a LinkNYC hotspot in Brooklyn. CityBridge

New York City plans to turn its lowly public payphone network into what it claims will be the biggest and fastest free municipal Wi-Fi network in the world.

City leaders revealed the $200 million plan, called LinkNYC, on Monday at City Hall. The project will replace the Big Apple's thousands of payphone installations with thin, sleek, 9.5-foot-tall hubs providing unlimited Internet access at super-high speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second.

A consortium called CityBridge won the bid to develop the project, though several city boards now need to approve the plan before construction can start. The group includes mobile chipmaker Qualcomm, which will help with connection technology, and outdoor advertiser Titan, which already has the largest contract in the city for maintaining and advertising on city payphones.

"This is going to be a critical step towards more access," said Maya Wiley, counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio, who added that the hubs will be important for lower-income New Yorkers, who rely especially on mobile signals to connect with city services and the Internet.

LinkNYC comes despite a mixed history of municipal Wi-Fi projects, with cities including New York, Philadelphia and dozens others throughout the US trying -- and failing -- to create and sustain such services. Cities have claimed these kinds of projects can help spur economic activity and narrow the digital divide between those who can access the Internet and those who can't. Yet many of these projects were scraped or scaled back over the years after cities and developers butt up against financial, competitive and technical challenges. Several current municipal Wi-Fi networks are available only in downtown areas and for a few hours a day for users.

The look of a LinkNYC hotspot in Manhattan. CityBridge

New York City residents won't pay a dime for the construction of the new network, and the city expects to reap millions more dollars from the contract than it receives from current payphone franchisees. In return for footing the bill for the project, CityBridge will get the chance to sell prime digital advertising space throughout New York City. It's that regular stream of ad revenue that makes CityBridge executives believe this project will succeed when others have failed.

The plan to reinvent the 6,400 payphone installations was first unveiled in 2012 by then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, with a request for proposals going out this May. The minimum requirements for the project was free Wi-Fi access and free calls to 911 and 311, the city's general information hotline. The city had already been piloting these free Wi-Fi hotspots at payphone locations for the past two years.

"LinkNYC will fundamentally transform New York City and set the standard for responsive cities for years to come," said Colin O'Donnell, chief operating officer of Control Group, a member of CityBridge.

The first 500 CityBridge sites will be available by late 2015 to early 2016, with the construction expected to go on for six years. The contract would last for 15 years.

The LinkNYC plan offers free phone calls anywhere in the US, a touchscreen tablet powered by Google's Android operating system embedded in the hotspot to access city services and directions, and free charging stations. The digital displays can be used by city government to provide public-service announcement and emergency information. Also, unlike some other municipal Wi-Fi services that limit use to a few hours, CityBridge plans to provide uninhibited access to users, except in potential security cases to protect the network from cyber-attacks.

"This will be completely unlimited access," O'Donnell said. "We're going through all this effort to bring massive bandwidth to the streets and we really want to see people use it. So, we're going to bring that connectivity and get out of the way."

The LinkNYC hub. CityBridge

The Wi-Fi signal will only work in the range of 150 feet and the roughly 7,500 hotspots available by the end of six years likely won't cover every nook and cranny of the city. Considering those limitations, LinkNYC won't be a potential replacement for many paid home networks.

Anyone in the city, including tourists, will be able to log into CityBridge once and stay on, even when transitioning to different hotspots. CityBridge plans to make its hubs work together with a project to provide wireless and Wi-Fi signals to subway stations throughout the city. Transit Wireless, which is leading the subway project, will provide the high-speed fiber infrastructure powering the LinkNYC hotspots.

CityBridge will share 50 percent of all its revenues with the city, and will provide minimum payments starting at $20 million annually regardless of sales. Comparatively, the payphone network in the latest fiscal year brought in about $16.5 million to city coffers.

After it takes over all the city's payphone spots, CityBridge agreed to maintain three existing "Superman"-style payphones. "It's a historic part of New York and we wanted to see that continue," said Scott Goldsmith, Titan's chief commercial officer.

Updated, 11:32 a.m. PT: Adds more information and context throughout.