New York City is a city like no other. It’s lousy with things to see: architectural icons, world-famous parks, A-list celebrities, pigeons, food carts, and pigeons eating off of food carts. With so many sites, it’s a real bummer that so many New Yorkers walk around the city staring directly into the hollow glow of their phones. This isn’t going to change anytime soon, especially with the de Blasio administration announcing that, starting next year, the city’s dated payphone system will become “the world’s fastest municipal Wi-Fi network.”
The system, called LinkNYC, includes 10,000 individual portals—called “Links”—that offer free Wi-Fi (up to 150 feet away), connections to city and emergency services, charging ports, and city information via a digital screen. These kiosks can even make national calls, just like the good ‘ole days. The program is being overseen by CityBridge, a group of technology, design, and advertising firms, and will be entirely funded by advertising. So, from a distance at least, Links will likely appear as an ad for a cologne or an airline. (Links in residential neighborhoods are more slender and feature less prominent ad space.)
The plan to replace New York City’s aging payphone infrastructure with a more 21st century alternative dates back to the Bloomberg years. Almost two years ago, the former mayor announced the Reinvent Payphones Design Competition “to rally urban designers, planners, technologists and policy experts to create physical and virtual prototypes that imagine the future of New York City’s public pay telephones.” That following spring, Sage and Coombe Architects’ NYFi portal won the Popular Choice Award. And then a year later, de Blasio issued an RFP to get the next generation payphone actually up and running. That’s where we are now: CityBridge has been selected by the city and installation should start early next year. The system could ultimately include up to 10,000 Links.
The de Blasio administration said the LinkNYC program will provide reliable, high-speed Wi-Fi across the five boroughs, and plugs into its underlying fight against inequality. “This administration has been committed to expanding affordable access to broadband for all New Yorkers from the outset,” Mayor de Blasio said in a statement. “It’s essential for everything we need to do to be a fair and just city, because we can’t continue to have a digital divide that holds back so many of our citizens.”
But, according to a Daily News report, not all Links will perform the same way, at least not as currently planned. “The speedier systems are flanked by advertising—and advertisers prefer wealthier eyes,” explained the publication. “As a result, all of the 2,500-plus locations in Manhattan are high speed, giving the borough with 20 percent of the city’s population fully 65 percent of all the fast kiosks. Meanwhile, the Bronx will get speedy Wi-Fi at 361 kiosks—just 6 percent of the fast Wi-Fi stations in the city. The borough will have slower service at 375 non-advertising kiosks, which replace old payphones.” An administration official told the Daily News that they are working to rectify the discrepancy.