Now that almost everyone has a cellphone pay phones have mostly gone the way of the buggy whip, but that doesn't mean that they're completely useless. In the past phone booths have been modified to serve as lending libraries, and now New York City is going to make them to serve a 21st century version of their traditional role.
NYC unveiled a new plan today to adapt some 10,000 pay phone locations to fill a new need as Wifi hotspots. LinkNYC is going to be a free city-wide wifi network that officials say will be the fastest and most wide-reaching network of its kind in the world.
The kiosks, which you can see below, will replace existing pay phones with entirely new hardware, so they won't technically be adapting existing units (mores the pity - I wanted to see a kludged together retrofit). Officials are talking about one gigabit per second wifi speeds within a radius of 150 feet of each kiosk, the first of which is scheduled to go into service in late 2015. The kiosks will offer free domestic phone call, charging stations for your mobile device, and video conferencing.
The kiosks will be free to use, and will be funded by streaming digital adverts. Officials are anticipating that the ads will generate at least $20 million in ad revenue annually, reducing taxpayer costs to nothing. I wouldn't be so sure about that; another source says that the kiosks will be funded by "as much as $500 million in advertising revenue over a dozen years", suggesting that no one really knows how much it will cost or whether it can be funded without taxpayers footing the bill.
Even so, it's a cool idea and a natural expansion on existing municipal efforts to provide internet access as a social good. Similar past efforts include free wifi at public libraries as well as broader efforts like that of Minneapolis, where 117 hotspots blanket the entire city.
And NYC has been trying to provide this type of service for some years now; many city parks boast free wifi now, and last year Google started providing free wifi to the area of Manhattan that surrounds its offices.