Public Works: Replacing Phone Booths With Wi-Fi Kiosks
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Public Works: Replacing Phone Booths With Wi-Fi Kiosks

NYC is building 7,500 internet access points in place of old payphones.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

The “Link,” New York’s new all-in-one wi-fi, phone, charging port and tablet station. Courtesy of LinkNYC.

Phone booths have long outlived their usefulness to most of us. These once-ubiquitous details of the urban landscape were passé even before Kiefer Sutherland was using them to entrap a greasy Colin Farrell in 2002.

Over the past decade, the number of payphones in Canada has decreased by around 66 per cent and counting, and here in Toronto you’re more likely to see a Bell booth being used as a public art installation than as a handy way to make some calls.

But, as the CRTC pointed out last year, payphones still provide a helpful service for the dwindling, but still significant, number of people who don’t own mobile phones. The commission’s 2015 report found that almost one third of Canadians used a payphone in the preceding year, and noted that for the “economically and socially disadvantaged,” public phones are vital.

In New York, they’ve found a way to address both the phone booth’s obsolescence and the continued public need to connect and communicate cheaply and conveniently.

The City is working with tech conglomerate CityBridge to create LinkNYC, a public network that will replace payphones all over Gotham.

Special kiosks, called Links, will eventually take the place of 7,500 phone booths. Each Link will offer free wi-fi, mobile device chargers, and a tablet for anyone to use. Oh and you’ll also be able to make phone calls at these street-side booths, like it’s 1956. And all the Links’ services are totally free.

Each location Links will have a pair of 55-inch HD screens for broadcasting public service announcements and advertising. Ads are expected not only to cover the cost of LinkNYC, but to raise over $500 million USD in revenue for the City.

And for anyone (rightly) concerned about data collection and privacy, the City has said LinkNYC uses encrypted connections between your device and the internet. The kiosks will collect only anonymous data to track usage and serve advertising. And, refreshingly, the City has pledged not to sell or share personal data with third parties.

The LinkNYC literature says it will take four years for the first 4,550 Links to be installed and “several years” for the full complement of 7,500 to appear.

Right now the project is entering its beta testing phase. By July 2016, there will be 510 Links spread across all five boroughs, and the public is invited to provide feedback on their use.

It’s hard now to believe any of us ever used the slippery receiver of a payphone in the graffitied confines of a cramped public booth. Technology has replaced that act, like so many others, with privacy, comfort, convenience.

We’ve outgrown the phone booth now. But we haven’t outgrown the need to connect. We haven’t outgrown the universal need to get or give information at all times. That need has, without a doubt, gotten greater. This Links idea satisfies it.