NYC unveils its pay phone Wi-Fi plan, promising 10,000 hotspots

After two years of trials and planning, New York City is finally ready to move forward on its plan to turn old pay phones into internet and information kiosks. It has selected CityBridge, a consortium of companies including Qualcomm and Transit Wireless, to replace up to 10,000 outdoor pay phones in all five boroughs with slick new internet stations called Links.

The network will be called LinkNYC, and it will offer a free, advertising-supported broadband service to all New Yorkers and visitors. The city is promising gigabit speeds from the network, though you probably shouldn’t get your hopes up that your connection to these kiosks will be faster than your connection at work or home.

LinkNYC is probably using new 802.11ac Wi-Fi technologies, which can theoretically support speed over a gigabit if the connecting device has the proper radio and antennas, but few devices today do. Plus, unless NYC is connecting every single one of these kiosks with fiber, there could be a bottleneck once your connection leaves the air and goes to ground. Fiber connections are certainly a possibility, but the one thing that each of these sites already has in common is a copper phone connection (they’re pay phones, after all), which means it would be a simple step to turn them into DSL lines.

LinkNYC will do more than offer beam Wi-Fi onto street corners, plazas and parks, though. Each kiosk will have an embedded touchscreen Android tablet, from which pedestrians can access city information and get directions. And while the city originally stipulated that these kiosks must be able to place 911 and 311 calls, CityBridge has gone one step further. You can make a domestic call to anyone in the 50 states from the kiosks through a direction speaker and microphone.

There is a USB slot to charge your smartphone or tablet. And on the street-facing side of each kiosk is a large digital screen where outdoor advertising and public service announcements will be displayed. The first kiosks will start going up in 2015 and the first internet stations will be live by year’s end. CityBridge, however, didn’t give any specific details on when the project would be complete.