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Free Wi-Fi for NYC? Yes, After This Advertisement

Rendering of a residential LinkNYC link somewhere in Brooklyn (all images courtesy LinkNYC, via link.nyc)
Rendering of a residential LinkNYC link somewhere in Brooklyn (all images courtesy LinkNYC, via link.nyc)

New York City has unveiled a plan to replace its 7,302 pay phones with wireless internet hubs that will offer amenities including free Wi-Fi, free domestic phone calls, USB chargers, and, naturally, advertising space that is projected to generate enough revenue to not only pay for the ambitious project, but also bring the city an additional $500 million in the project’s first 12 years. Dubbed LinkNYC, the network of wireless “Links” is due to be up and running by the end of 2015.

Renderings of the Links show sleek, totemic monoliths in two models: the relatively unobtrusive and slender “residential” model (above), and the wider, advertising-optimized “commercial” version (below). Guess which one we’ll be getting more of? According to a request for proposals the city issued in April, the city has guaranteed that at least 4,000 Links with advertising space will be built, with the vast majority of them (2,600) being installed in Manhattan. Staten Island’s Wi-Fi pilars will remain relatively ad-free, with just 19 commercial Links being deployed to the borough.

Rendering of a commercial LinkNYC link on 57th Street in Manhattan
Rendering of a commercial LinkNYC link on 57th Street in Manhattan

The LinkNYC project differs significantly from the innumerable municipal wireless initiatives that many cities tried to launch about a decade ago, but seldom few managed to maintain or even get off the ground. Wireless Philadelphia may be the best known; the city quietly bought out what was left of that problem-plagued network in 2009 to re-purpose it as a municipal government network. Google WiFi, a system the tech giant launched on its home turf of Mountain View, California, in 2006, was switched off seven years later when nobody in the Silicon Valley city could get a connection. While such networks relied on the technology, infrastructure, and troubleshooting know-how of one major technology company, LinkNYC will distribute the responsibility for its free wireless network among a coalition of companies.

In New York City, the Mayor’s Office of Technology and Innovation is overseeing the project, while a group of six companies dubbed “CityBridge” will actually design, develop, install, operate, maintain, and monetize the network. The transit advertising company Titan will handle operations and ads; New York-based tech company Control Group is designing the user interface on the Android tablet that will be embedded in each aluminum totem; Qualcomm will handle the wireless technology; Comark is engineering and building the thousands of Links. Listed as members of the “extended team” in a LinkNYC media kit are Transit Wireless, the company currently equipping the city’s subway stations with wireless, and Antenna Design, which is developing the look of the Links. A precursor to the LinkNYC project, dubbed “Payphone WiFi,” saw 20 pay phones throughout the city converted into wireless hubs.

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