Closing the Digital Divide with Payphones

By Stephen Goldsmith • April 27, 2015

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Cities are now dotted with myriad sensors and digital devices. Besides traditional traffic and security cameras, many cities have sensors to detect gunfire and still other devices to monitor vacated parking spots. As this network of digital, Internet-connected devices (i.e., the Internet of Things) grows, city officials are finding new ways to repurpose and incorporate more traditional assets.

Few attempts at this work may prove as path-breaking as New York City’s plan to repurpose thousands of underutilized payphones into hubs that provide both a platform for sensors and a citywide, high-speed Wi-Fi network. As the network of high-speed hubs grows, it is expected that so too will the network of real-world sensors and cloud-connected devices that constitutes the city’s Internet of Things.

Starting this year, New York City will begin to replace aging payphones and install thousands of connection points, dubbed Links. The goal is for a seamless Wi-Fi roaming experience from Link to Link once the network of hot spots across the five boroughs has fully expanded. In addition to 24/7 free Internet access at speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second — more than 100 times faster than average public Wi-Fi — each Link will offer a range of other benefits as well. This includes free domestic phone calls, a touchscreen interface for accessing city services, wayfinding information, easy access for 911 and 311 calls, free cellphone charging, and digital advertising and public service announcements.

“We can’t continue to have a digital divide that holds back so many of our citizens,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio in a prepared statement. “With this proposal for the fastest and largest municipal Wi-Fi network in the world — accessible to and free for all New Yorkers and visitors alike — we’re taking a critical step toward a more equal, open and connected city for every New Yorker, in every borough.”

As the Internet of Things grows, city officials are finding new ways to repurpose and incorporate more traditional assets.

The service won’t just be free to users; it’s intended to be free to the city as well. The Links will be funded through advertising revenues and built at no cost to taxpayers. Development has been several years in the making. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg started the process by piloting payphone Wi-Fi in the summer of 2012 and launching a "reinventing payphones challenge" later that year. DeBlasio put out the RFP in April 2014. The winning proposal, selected last November, was developed through a partnership between the city and a consortium of four private-sector companies representing a mix of expertise in technology, advertising, connectivity and user experience. In addition to the four consortium companies, the same partner company already working to bring Wi-Fi to hundreds of city subways will execute the high-speed fiber infrastructure needed to power the network.

It will take several years to install Links across the entire city, but the consortium has committed to establishing a facility for local production right in New York City. In addition to creating tremendous value for the city and private citizens, each unit is expected to provide local businesses and advertisers with the ability to provide highly targeted, contextualized ads. Over 12 years, the network is expected to generate more than $500 million in revenue for the city.

As sensors and connected devices become core to how cities are managed, the need for citywide Wi-Fi networks is likely to increase. Building these networks will be a complex endeavor that requires the best in network integration — not just the digital network but also the network of public, private and nonprofit users who share risk and benefit. A bright future for cities will be achieved by those whose officials creatively procure innovative solutions.

About the Author

Stephen Goldsmith 

Stephen Goldsmith is the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy and the Director of the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. His latest book is A New City O/S.

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