Bridging the Opportunity Divide

A Free Wi-Fi Future for New York City Residents

May 16, 2014
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A Free Wi-Fi Future for New York City Residents
A free Wi-Fi hotspot beams broadband internet from atop a public phone booth on July 11, 2012 in Manhattan, New York City. John Moore/Getty Images
The Big Apple’s decaying phone booths have a second life as information hubs.

Twelve years ago, the actor Colin Farrell starred in the movie Phone Booth, as a morally corrupt publicist terrorized by an anonymous sniper who forces him to stay in a New York City public phone booth until he confesses his misdeeds to loved ones.

As outlandish and unlikely a story, the sequel to this action flick would have Farrell terrorized in a retrofitted booth which distributes free Wi-Fi to Big Apple residents, financed by corporate advertisements surrounding the hub.

While the movie aspect of this scenario sounds strange and unrealistic, it is. But the Wi-Fi portion has the makings of complete non-fiction. With over 11,000 payphones currently franchised out to 13 companies that maintain operations and services, the city of New York has been planning incremental changes to these curbside booths as contracts on the payphones are set to expire this October.

Back in July of 2012, the city converted 10 phone booths located in the boroughs of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens into Wi-Fi hot spots. This pilot program, which offers a free signal up to 200 feet from each payphone, aimed to make the city Wi-Fi accessible to those who are unable to afford the service.

It seems as if New Yorkers can’t get enough of their Wi-Fi, and much of the city’s feedback from residents was a request for more Wi-Fi availability.

After the successful pilot, former mayor Bloomberg proceeded in early 2013 with the Reinvent Payphones Design Challenge, which encouraged students, urban planners, architects, and others with an interest in technology and design to construct physical and/or virtual structures offering a new public utility using the current payphone infrastructure. Submitters were not limited to Wi-Fi, and ideas were graded on the level of connectivity offered.

Encouraged by the vision and innovation displayed in contestants, the city’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications has put out a new request for proposals. This time, the city has put in more realistic restraints — including cost, feasibility and durability of the proposed prototypes. Submissions are due at the end of June.

Techies are excited not only about the possibility of Wi-Fi service, but also how this access can contribute to the city’s growth. “Availability of free public Wi-Fi service is the cornerstone for the Mayor’s goal of making New York City the most wired city in the world. This innovative project will also support the New York City tech economy, which cannot continue to grow unless all New Yorkers have open access to the Internet and all its resources,” said Andrew Rasiej, Chairman of the NY Tech Meetup, a nonprofit organization that supports the New York technology community.

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