“W
e’re an effort to reimagine the city’s antiquated payphone infrastructure and deliver a state-of-the-art 21st century experience for New Yorkers — workers, residents and visitors,” says Jen Hensley, general manager for LinkNYC. The “effort” kicked into high gear in December 2015, when LinkNYC began physically replacing the city’s old pay phones, which Hensley estimates have been around since the 1970s, with kiosks, or wi-fi hubs.

When activated, each kiosk will provide one gigabit of wi-fi service — which the company claims is 100 times faster than average public wi-fi and your mobile device’s LTE network — to anyone connected to it within a radius minimum of 150 feet. And it’s free for anybody to use. As far as Hensley knows, there’s no other public wi-fi system like it.

LinkNYC originated at the end of the Bloomberg administration, when the city issued an RFI to decide what to do with the city’s pay phones. Titan, an outdoor advertising company, and Control Group, a technology company, met and proposed the original idea behind LinkNYC. Bloomberg left office without advancing it, says Hensley, but the de Blasio administration, with the leadership of the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, pushed the project forward. Titan and Control Group merged to form Intersection, and they then joined with CIVIQ Smartscapes, an industrial-grade manufacturer of ruggedized digital display units, and Qualcomm, a wireless telecommunications company, to form the joint venture CityBridge, whose proposal for LinkNYC was accepted in December 2014.

“When we give every New Yorker free wi-fi, we really don’t know what’ll happen. We don’t know what innovation will come of it or how people will use it.”

Since the first kiosk went into the ground 10 weeks ago, Hensley says they’ve been “rolling them out.” As of mid-March 2015, there are roughly 100 kiosks in the city. That number is expected to reach 510 kiosks, in all five boroughs, by the end of this July. However, only 31 of those 100 are activated (i.e., serving ads and wi-fi), because installing and activating are two separate processes. To be activated, each kiosk must be linked to the city’s fiber network, whose nucleus is in Chelsea. The fiber has to then be strung from kiosk to kiosk. Hensley says they’re currently working up 8th Avenue, with the plan of going through the Upper West Side, East Harlem and into the Bronx. Simultaneously they’re also “pulling fiber” in Queens and working their way through Long Island City and Brooklyn.

When completed, 256 people (LinkNYC’s contractual minimum) can connect with each kiosk without any deterioration in speed or service. The kiosk will be equipped with a tablet interface, where people can make free domestic phone calls (no smartphone required), browse the web, and have direct access to wayfinding and other city services. There will also be two USB ports per kiosk, working independently from the tablet, for charging. “We created a highly custom product,” says Hensley. “We designed the operating system for the tablet experience, we created all the user experience features of the network, including the captive portal sign on.” The kiosk’s wi-fi can be accessed through a mobile device, laptop or phone — log in once, at one kiosk, and you can easily connect to any other kiosk in the city.

Meet The Link

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1. Personal devices connect to LinkNYC’s speedy, free wi-fi.
2. The kiosk allows users to browse the web and access city services, maps and directions from the tablet.
3. Free phone calls can be made to anywhere in the US and a port allows use of personal headphones for privacy.
4. Dedicated 911 button.
5. USB ports for power.
6. A minimal profile design by design firm Antenna.
7. Public service announcements and advertising appear on two 55-inch HD displays.

LinkNYC users also won’t have to endure any 30-second videos or persistent pop-up ads when using the tablet or wi-fi. The project is funded entirely by ads that are displayed on either side of the kiosks’ 55-inch digital screens and don’t affect the user’s experience. LinkNYC estimates these ads alone will generate more than $500 million in revenue for the city over the next 12 years — at no additional cost to taxpayers.

Today, 79 percent of the city’s 8.5 million residents own smartphones, according to a 2015 study published by the city’s Department of Consumer Affairs. And 66.5 percent of people who earned $0 a week have smartphones. LinkNYC is anticipating that all of these people will want to access their free wi-fi, as unlimited data plans aren’t cheap. And for visitors, the kiosks should be a tremendous asset, eliminating the need for an international calling plan and also helping to navigate the city.

The kiosks can also be programed to display emergency messages and other information, like transit delays, but they only operate a few apps, like Vonage’s free phone-calling app, 311 city service and information app, a mapping service and internet browser — so there’s room for improvement. Intersection, one of the companies in LinkNYC’s joint venture, was behind the OTG (On the Go) travel stations, so the opportunity to work with the MTA and improve the kiosk’s navigation ability is there. An NFC payment system is also an option down the road. “We’re contractually obligated to maintain a state-of-the-art system,” says Hensley, “so they’ll constantly be updating as it becomes available.”

Over the next four to eight years of the project, LinkNYC will have at least 7,500 kiosks built — 65 percent in Manhattan — and that number could reach 10,000.

In addition to the kiosks, LinkNYC is planning to build five centers (by 2017) that’ll also run on their wireless network. “These will be free indoor public spaces where New Yorkers can access the one-gigabit free network,” says Hensley. “And we expect there to be computer-lab types of opportunities.” Training courses and other supplementary services will be possible, to help New Yorkers take advantage of all this online capacity.

Over the next four to eight years of the project, LinkNYC will have at least 7,500 kiosks built — 65 percent in Manhattan — and that number could reach 10,000. They’re still in their beta phase, which will last until they’re “fully confident in the technology and the industry-field testing,” says Hensley. She expects beta to last until July 2016. “When we give every New Yorker free wi-fi, we really don’t know what’ll happen. We don’t know what innovation will come of it or how people will use it, and we’re excited to see what comes out of it.”