Payphones Get an Upgrade with City’s Free WiFi Pilot

| July 17, 2012 4:00 AM video

No longer bound for extinction, payphones are now getting refit for the mobile age.

Last week, the city announced the launch of the WiFi Hotspots Project, which provides free public WiFi from typical sidewalk payphones. Using existing infrastructure, this development is part of the city’s goal to expand broadband technology across all five boroughs and become a leading digital city.


MetroFocus asks people on the street about how they’re using the free WiFi hotspots in Midtown Manhattan. Video by MetroFocus/Bijan Rezvani.

“One of the most frequent requests from New Yorkers is for more public WiFi in public spaces,” said Rachel Sterne, the city’s chief digital officer, in a press release last week, “With this exciting WiFi pilot of New York City payphone kiosks, we are proud to take another step to connect more New Yorkers.”

Currently, there are 10 payphone kiosks  equipped with free WiFi access in Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn. The city plans to install many more in the coming months and to expand to all five boroughs.

MetroFocus visited four hotspots in Midtown Manhattan, a hub of workplaces and tourist attractions, and asked smartphone users what they thought of the hotspots. Many weren’t aware of the project.

“Well I knew they had hotspots in New York City, but I knew they’d be in Macy’s or Burger King,” said John Page, a Bronx resident, “But as far as out on the street, I read something about it but I never really noticed it.”

In fact, the hotspots are quite nondescript. While their backs, facing traffic, and sides have signs stating “Free WiFi Here” at all the current locations, the insides of the payphone kiosks are bare.

Those who did test the WiFi connection were positive about the results.

“I’ve used [public WiFi] in London a couple of times, but at times it’s slow,” said Rashim, a tourist from England searching for his flight information, “This was quite fast, I must admit. I got to do what I had to do in about two to three minutes.”

“It’s convenient because we don’t really have that much service at my job, so with the free WiFi hotspot, we can get it and it’s faster,” said Jeffrey Campbell, a Brooklyn resident who works in midtown.

Others were using the service to search for downtown restaurants, art stores, or to simply browse Facebook.

The WiFi Hotspot Project comes at no additional cost to the city or the public, since it is entirely funded by Van Wagner Communications and Titan, one of the city’s largest payphone franchises, in a collaboration with the NYC Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT). To get connected, users can select “Free WiFi/NYC Free Public WiFi” on their smart phone, tablet or laptop and browse freely without having to share any personal information, as long as they are within 200 feet of the hotspot.

Some people were not as convinced about the project.

“I did try it out but I wasn’t able to get it to connect right away, ” said Max Addy, a Queens resident and tech blogger, “Even though I’m sitting pretty close to it, it didn’t exactly have a strong signal so I’m not really sure how well it’s going to work.” He added that it was an interesting idea since it was free for the public, but he didn’t feel that the use of public payphones was that significant.

Many people MetroFocus spoke with felt that WiFi access would be most helpful in underground subway stations. NYC DoITT only regulates the city’s curbside public payphones however, and the subway station phones are regulated by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

The city has issued a Request for Information (RFI) to get feedback from New Yorkers about the future of these payphones. Since payphones are now rarely used, the city is experimenting with other ways to use the sidewalk space, such as putting in touch screen panels, information kiosks, or phone charging stations. The public is encouraged to send comments and suggestions via email or mail through August 22.

“As we begin assessing the future of the payphone in New York City, this pilot should help us gauge public interest in the amenities the next generation of devices might offer,” said Rahul N. Merchant, the city’s chief information and innovation officer, in the press release.

New Yorkers have many more free WiFi options that these ten hotspots. The city also provides free WiFi access at every library branch and at more than 40 parks across all boroughs.

Below are the current 10 WiFi hotspots provided through payphone kiosks:

MANHATTAN:

402 West Broadway

458 Seventh Ave.

28 West 48th St.

410 Madison Ave.

1609 Broadway

1790 Broadway

230 West 95th St.

BROOKLYN:

545 Albee Square

2 Smith Street

QUEENS:

30-94 Steinway St.

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