New York starts turning payphones into free Wi-fi hotspots

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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

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