In NYC, once a payphone, soon a superfast Wi

As part of the $200 million project, the first new hubs are expected to come online in late 2015.


New York City plans to turn its lowly public payphone network into what it claims will be the biggest and fastest free municipal Wi-Fi network in the world.

City leaders revealed the $200 million plan, called LinkNYC, on Monday at City Hall, offering to replace the Big Apple's thousands of payphone installations with thin, sleek, 9.5-foot hubs providing 24/7, unlimited Internet access at super-high speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second. A consortium called CityBridge -- which includes Qualcomm, Titan, Control Group and Comark -- won the bid to develop the project, though the group first needs to go through an approvals process with several city boards.

LinkNYC comes despite a mixed history of municipal Wi-Fi projects, with cities including New York, Philadelphia and dozens others throughout the US trying -- and failing -- to create and sustain such services. Cities have claimed these kinds of projects can help spur economic activity and narrow the digital divide between those who can access the Internet and those who can't. Yet many of these projects were scraped or scaled back over the years, as the cities and developers involved butt up against financial, competitive and technical challenges. Several current municipal Wi-Fi networks are available only in downtown areas and for a few hours a day for users.

New York City residents won't pay a dime for the buildout of the new network, and the city expects to actually reap millions more dollars from the contract than it receives from current payphone franchisees, thanks to a regular stream of digital advertising revenue sustaining the project. In its first year of construction, CityBridge will share 50 percent of all advertising and other revenues with the city, and will provide minimum payments starting at $20 million annually regardless of sales. Comparatively, the payphone network in the latest fiscal year brought in about $16.5 million to city coffers.

The plan to reinvent the 6,400 payphone installations was first unveiled in 2012 by then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, with a request for proposals going out this May. The minimum requirements for the project was free Wi-Fi access and free calls to 911 and 311, the city's general information hotline. The city had already been piloting these free Wi-Fi hotspots at payphone locations for the past two years.

'LinkNYC will fundamentally transform New York City and set the standard for responsive cities for years to come,' said Colin O'Donnell, Control Group's chief operating officer.

The LinkNYC plan adds free phone calls anywhere in the US, a touchscreen tablet powered by Google's Android operating system embedded in the hotspot to access city services and directions, and free charging stations. The digital displays can be used by the city to provide public-service announcement and emergency information.

The first 500 CityBridge sites will be available by late 2015 to early 2016, with the construction expected to continue for six years.


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