New York City replaces 250 public pay phones with iPad-like screens

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the humble phone booth took on renewed importance as cut-off New Yorkers used pay phones to connect with each other in an emergency. Now, this quaint but reliable form of public technology is getting a major facelift.

Starting today, New York City is officially launching a plan to transform pay phones into giant touch screens that provide city information, emergency broadcasts and local business deals. Located in the same locations as existing phone booths, the new platforms look like this:

The platforms are run as a partnership between New York City and two companies, Cisco(s csco) and City 24/7. The smart screens were tested in a pilot project for a while but now they are officially live across the city, including at 12th & Broadway and 3rd Ave & 10th street. Soon, there will be 250 of the newfangled devices in all five city boroughs. “We’ll average a couple of installs per day. With the holidays approaching, they won’t all be in for a couple of months,” said City 24/7 by email.

Get a coupon or instructions in an emergency

To understand the new program, it’s useful to recall how the business of old school pay phones works. In New York, 14 different companies rent pieces of sidewalk from the city to sell telephone calls and advertising. Like a hot dog stand, they have to abide by certain conditions and pay the city to set up shop — the New York Post reported this year that the city has 12,800 outdoor phones and earns $18 million a year from coins and ads.

In the age of WiFi and smartphones, however, a coin-based telephone business is not a great use of city real estate. That’s why New York is turning traditional phone booths into a much broader form of communication that offers information about weather, transit, parks and more. And instead of coins, the smart screens make money through advertising — including coupons from nearby merchants.

In practice, this means that a person strolling through Greenwich Village might tap on the public screen to find information about the subway or a city park. While there, she might also tap on the “deals” icon to bring up a list of coupons for nearby shops and restaurants. To store the information or coupons, she would hold up her phone and retrieve it via bluetooth, QR code or another mechanism.

“There’s a reason we started with pay phones. They’re legacy infrastructure that the city can utilize and revitalize quickly,” said City 24/7 CEO Tom Touchet in an interview, adding that the goal of the project can be summed up by the words “inform, protect and revitalize.”

Touchet, a former executive producer of the Today Show, also noted that useful information is key to making the platform a commercial success: “you have to give people content before you give them advertising.”

Maps and coffee coupons are just one dimension of the new platforms’ role. They will also, like traditional phone booths, serve as a communication tool during emergencies — but in a far more sophisticated way. In the event of another disaster like Hurricane Sandy, the screens will become two-way distress devices that let citizens call for help or receive instructions about how to find safety.

As Jeff Frazier of Cisco explained in an interview, his company is providing back-end tools that integrate both the emergency 911 system and New York’s 311 public information service. All together, the city’s new smart screens represent a powerful fusion of data and communications that are intended to stay secure and online even during a disaster.

Strong and easy to clean

As anyone who’s watched The Wire can attest, traditional phone booths have a dark side. They are not only a way to connect friends but also a place of business for pimps and drug dealers, and temporary shelters for hobos. And if New York’s new phone booths resemble giant iPads(s aapl), could they also be the target of vandalism or the wave of “i-crime” sweeping the city?

In response to such concerns, Touchet says that the new platforms have been field tested for months and “not just in the Upper East Side.” He says they have been deployed successfully in high traffic areas like Penn Station and on the tough streets of Newark, New Jersey.

According to Touchet, wherever the screens have been tested, they’ve been treated like a valuable public good by all communities. But he notes the screens were “over-engineered for a reason” and that they can withstand anything New Yorkers throw at them. The platforms can also be easily sprayed clean.

Now that the machines are live, New York won’t immediately share in advertising revenue but will before long. The companies also plan to expand to other world cities in the future.