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Summary:

Payphones, those relics of the pre-cellphone era, may just get a new lease on life in New York. The city is testing a new pilot program in which it installs free Wi-Fi on select payphone kiosks. It is starting with ten kiosks in three boroughs.

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Payphones, those relics of the pre-cellphone era, may just get a new lease on life in New York. The city is testing a pilot program in which it installs free Wi-Fi on select payphone kiosks.

The hotspots are initially coming to ten payphones in three of the boroughs and will be open to the public to access for free. You can see a list of sites here. Users just agree to the terms, visit the city’s tourism website and then they’re up and running. Currently, there are no ads on the service, but there could be in the future.

The effort is part of the city’s larger goal of providing more digital inclusion for residents. And it’s also aimed at helping figure out the future of the city’s payphones, which are a source of complaints from many residents because they attract crime or are just plain ugly.

The payphones have been outfitted with “military grade” antennas, that provide service up to 300 feet away. The $2,000 installation is being provided for free by Van Wagner Communications, which owns many of the city’s payphones. The plan is to eventually spread the Wi-Fi hotspots to more of the city’s 13,000 payphones with the maintenance and ongoing costs paid by the payphone companies.

New York is already flush with a lot of great free Wi-Fi options. AT&T has been lighting up many of the city’s parks as part of a five-year plan. The city has been installing more Wi-Fi at schools, libraries and senior centers. And providers like Towerstream are providing sponsored Wi-Fi for users who are willing to view a selection of daily deals. I don’t think the payphone companies will keep providing a completely free service. It’s likely ads will be inserted at some point, something AT&T is testing as well.

I think it’s a good start for re-using payphones, which serve less and less need in our mobile centric world. And it speaks to our addiction to Wi-Fi and data, which is now even more popular than cellular. The use of more Wi-Fi can also lessen congestion on busy cellular networks, which can get bogged down in dense cities like New York and San Francisco. I can’t recall the last time I’ve used a payphone but I’ll be glad to see them around if it means more free Wi-Fi.

Image courtesy of Rachel Sterne

  1. Some years ago I spent a few years at Verizon, and was wrapped up in the “what do we do with our payphones?” question. The company itself installed WiFi at quite a few of the then-company-owned phones.

    The problem for VZ was that it wasn’t making money off the phones any longer, was obligated by tariff and also by the existence of long-term advertising contracts on the phone enclosures to keep the phones running, and hadn’t come up with a way to monetize any of that. Of course, giving away WiFi to Verizon Internet customers wasn’t helping that and Big Red hadn’t as yet learned that they like everybody else were becoming players in the advertising business.

    It’s nice to see that Wagner understands the value of the properties they control. And that property isn’t the phone, it’s the ENCLOSURE. Right-of-way, it seems, is valuable indeed.

    Or as real estate people say, “Location, location, location”.

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  2. BT in the UK has been doing this for years now. http://www.payphones.bt.com/business/wifi/productsolutions/
    Some of the BT payphones have been converted to internet/email centers with QWERTY keypads and some of them have leased a portion of the payphone space to house ATMs http://www.payphones.bt.com/business/atm/productsolutions/

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    1. “BT in the UK has been doing this for years now.”

      Not exactly.

      BT Openzone hotspots are situated in old payphone locations, yes, but their WiFi service is far from ‘free’.

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    2. Where? Never seen one in London.. do they really? Might explain some of those red phone boxes with no phones with them in the Covent Garden area.. ;-)

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  3. Are the phones still operable? I sure hope so. I’m not a religious guy but I think the words of Matthew 25:41-46 deserve consideration when thinking about service to those who need pay phones:

    41″Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

    44″They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

    45″He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

    46″Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

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    1. thomedwardmilson Thursday, July 12, 2012

      I don’ mean to be rude, but how is that relevant?

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    2. Shut. Up.

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    3. you sir are truly disturb

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  4. Awesome idea. The lines are already there!

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  5. Nobody else is amazed that 30 year old technology can now push out free wifi but I shouldn’t be pissed when I’m overpaying for DSL type speeds with my cable modem? Speed vs. cost is the biggest scam out there today. (Anybody else interested in how FiOS and XFinity can start to offer speeds at 4x normal rates at ‘no additional cost’ with no structural upgrades? Right. Cause they throttle the crap out of everything.

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  6. 最终冰器红豆 Wednesday, July 11, 2012

    It is more than proving free phone calls at payphone for smartphone owners. And the people can’t afford smartphone has to pay for making phone call. Is it fair? And a subtle question, what’s the objective of free public Wi-Fi?

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  7. douglas krause Thursday, July 12, 2012

    Great, internet with the background smell of stale piss.

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  8. I’d be very suspicious of those hotspots. Bloomberg being the nanny that he is, would use them to intrude on our privacy.

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  9. i think dat is another form of recycling in the tech world!….great idea….

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  10. Military-grade antennas ? That’s a joke. What a waste of money!
    In the best of circumstances, wireless g can THEORETICALLY transmit 300 feet outdoors, line of site. But, and alot of big buts, your mobile device needs to do the same in return, which is highly unlikely. This also assumes that there is no interference from other wifi’s in the area on the same 1 of available 11 channels.
    In new York city, highly doubt it.
    I would be willing to bet coverage on those boxes is about 50 feet, as I am almost certain that there are approx. 5,000 other radio transmitters vying for that channel within a 2 block radius.
    This is a waste of tourism dept. money. A better idea would be to lower hire budget, as he obviously have too much to spend on worthless ideas. Give those tax dollars back to the people that paid into the system.

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