A guide to New York’s plan to cover the city in Wi-Fi hotspots

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In December, New York City agreed to permanently change its cityscape and provide internet access on street corners sporting download speeds that are an order of magnitude faster than those available in many people’s homes in the five boroughs.

CityBridge, a for-profit consortium of four companies, will rip out old payphones and install new internet infrastructure in its place. Kiosks called Links will not only provide free and fast Wi-Fi for your smartphone or computer, but they’ll have USB ports for charging, will provide free calls to anywhere in the United States, and will have built-in Android tablets for internet connectivity in case you don’t have a device. Basically, everything you need while you’re out and about; except for a bathroom.

These souped-up hotspots will supposedly pay for themselves, too. New York City, according to Mayor Bill de Blasio, isn’t contributing a taxpayer cent to the construction and operation of Links around the city. In fact, New York City expects to generate about $500 million over the life of the contract from the project. CityBridge plans to make its money through advertising.

This year, CityBridge will start to reveal how it’s going to pull this off and what it means for New Yorkers, including where the first Links will be installed. Hopefully, a few Links will be installed before the end of the year.

Here’s what you need to know about New York’s municipal Wi-Fi network as it gets off the ground.

What will the physical Links look like?

There are two proposed Link designs, one with display advertising and one without advertising, although for the next four years you’ll basically only see the wider, advertising-supported Link:

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There’s also going to be a skinnier Link without display advertising, but those will mainly be deployed in Staten Island, at least to start, because that borough has its own community restrictions on signage:

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Each link will supply a Wi-Fi network within a 150-foot radius. If you’re wondering what these would look like rendered into a New York scene, CityBridge also has illustrations of what Links could look like in Midtown Manhattan, or near the Barclays Center, or in brownstone Brooklyn:

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Both Links were designed by Masamichi Udagawa and Sigi Moeslinger, whose company Antenna Design has created installations for New York City in the past. Each Link will have USB ports for charging devices, as well as an installed touchscreen tablet running Android which will allow users to access the internet and make free phone calls within the United States though a directional speaker, as well as access city services and information.

What is CityBridge?

CityBridge is a partnership between four companies: Titan, the New York display advertising giant; Comark, which will be fabricating the actual kiosks; Control Group, which is providing most of the strategy for the concern; and chipmaker [company]Qualcomm[/company]. They all own about a quarter of the partnership, which entered into a 12-year, $200 million contract with New York City to build and administer Links.

When does installation start?

Short answer: You might be seeing the first Links installed at the end of 2015.

Since the project to install Links is taking place over a 12-year period, it can feel far off in the future. Many figures cited by the government are over eight years, like CityBridge’s promise to install 6,000 advertising-supported Links and 1,500 of its skinner sibling. In fact, it will take the full 12 years on the contract to install the 10,000-Link figure you might have seen thrown around last fall. But the project should actually start breaking ground this year.

But before concrete gets ripped up, first the New York Public Design Commission needs to approve the Link’s design. Once that happens, the clock starts ticking on minimum installation requirements in the CityBridge contract.

One year and 120 days after the Art Commission signs off, CityBridge is required to have installed this many Links:

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After four years, which is considered a major turning point for the LinkNYC project because it marks the end of cannibalizing old payphones, there will be 4550 Links installed in the five boroughs:

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Ultimately, to fulfill the contract, Citybridge will need to install 7,500 links in an eight-year period or face fines. However, CityBridge can elect to install more than these minimum numbers, and probably will, considering its advertising-based business model.

What happens after four years?

Although LinkNYC was first proposed and has been mostly publicized as a program to replace old payphones, the installation of a Link actually doesn’t require an existing payphone unit. Indeed, after four years, Links will start popping up in places that didn’t have a payphone there before.

Links won’t be using the old copper wire that provides the dialtone on payphones. In fact, to get to the gigabit speeds both the city and CityBridge are consistently promising, Links will need to be connected by fiber. So little-used payphones around the city have been chosen to be replaced not for their current connections, but because they’re likely in convenient spots.

Will I actually see gigabit speeds?

Without testing a Link out in person, it’s hard to say, but CityBridge certainly seems committed to that gigabit number.

One of the controversies surrounding LinkNYC when it was announced that CityBridge had won the contract was whether all Links would be outfitted with gigabit connections, which requires a fiber optic connection. Some alleged that poorer neighborhoods in the outer boroughs would get stuck with weaker connections — still rated for 100Mbps, easily surpassing the FCC’s new broadband definition — where ritzy neighborhoods would get the gigabit speeds. In response, CityBridge clarified that the value of a Link’s advertisments wouldn’t have anything to do with the speeds, and that 95 percent of Links would support gigabit speeds, based on fiber availability.

Anne Roest, New York’s commissioner of information technology, noted that CityBridge committed $200 million dollars to building New York’s fiber network out in all five boroughs.

The second speed bottleneck could be your own device. The only Wi-Fi protocol that currently supports gigabit download speeds is 802.11ac, which may not be built into your device, especially if it’s older. But LinkNYC will support it. From the contract, each hub “must be capable of supporting up to 256 devices with a total aggregate throughput of 1Gbps” and “simultaneous dual spectrum 2.4 GHz 802.11 b/g/n, and 5GHz a/n/ac services.” So if you’re the only one connected to a Link, you might be able to pull down gigabit speeds.

Plus, there’s a requirement built into the agreement for CityBridge to upgrade its Link design every four years, in case a technology like WiGig takes off and should be installed, or any other obvious improvements to stave off obsolescence. In fact, there’s a pilot program planned in the Bronx for a partially solar-powered Link that might be incorporated into the next design.

What will the advertising look like?

CityBridge already has a draft of a privacy policy, which indicates that it plans to show ads on the built-in tablets as well as on people’s devices.

When you connect to the network, you’ll first hit a splash page with a little bit of advertising. You’ll need to provide an email address, a username and password to create a LinkNYC account. The hope is that even when you go from one Link location to another, you can access the network without logging in again. The range of a link is 150 feet in all directions, so even if there’s a link at every corner there will still be areas on a block too far away to connect.

But the real moneymaker will be display advertisements. Titan already makes a mint by selling mini-billboards around the city, and Links — at least the wider model — will come with two digital ad units on each side that can be changed remotely or sold programatically. Essentially, Titan, an outdoor advertising company, is getting the inventory to display thousands of new state-of-the-art ad units around New York.

“Major brands will flock to advertise on the LinkNYC network because the structures look beautiful,” Dave Etherington, chief strategy officer at Titan said. “This also means they could customize their message from Link to Link.”

Titan… Where have I heard that name before?

Last fall, Buzzfeed discovered that Titan had installed and activated beacons — a Bluetooth technology — in phone booths all over New York City. In response, de Blasio’s office asked them to remove the beacons or turn them off.

It’s hard to say. The privacy policy says:

We do not collect information about your precise location. However, we know where we provide WiFi services, so when you use the Services we can determine your general location.

Beacons, commonly used for precise proximity location, would appear to violate the privacy policy. However, the CityBridge contract specifically says that a one-way Bluetooth connection — like Beacons use — could be included in the Link.

The provision of USB charging ports… and one-way blue-tooth transmission of Structure location information are expressly contemplated ancillary services and do not require subsequent approval of the Commissioner.

Brian Dunphy, a senior vice president at Qualcomm’s beacon spinoff Gimbal, seemed excited about the Link project at a public hearing. “It is easy to imagine an application creating an app that allows visually-impaired to understand exactly where they are within the city as well as providing them with access to services and offers in a way that was previously unimaginable,” Dunphy said.

“We absolutely support the use of the platform for sensors for the Internet of Things,” Colin O’Donnell, managing member of CityBridge, said. That presumably includes beacons.

Should I be concerned that CityBridge could track me?

CityBridge will collect and log the usual network stuff, including MAC addresses, URL requests, and other device identifiers, and like the vast majority of ISPs, will turn network data over to law enforcement when subpoenaed.

O’Donnell said Links will block peer-to-peer traffic. However, it doesn’t look like they’ll be blocking websites. CityBridge says that it’s committed to net neutrality, and it “shall not in providing the Wi-Fi Service unreasonably discriminate in transmitting lawful network traffic.”

Links will not recognize Do Not Track settings in users’ browsers.

Ultimately, it’s difficult to argue with the privacy of a city service that will always be free. CityBridge won’t be able to introduce a new premium tier of service later, either, so it will have to make its money through advertising.

Who’s unhappy about the LinkNYC project?

The biggest controversy surrounding the Links is that CityBridge’s contract runs for twelve years (plus a city option to extend it to fifteen years) and during that period, it might not be possible for other vendors to build Links with their own technology on city property — giving CityBridge an effective monopoly on city-furnished Wi-Fi for over a decade. The companies most affected are pay phone operators.

“At present, with this decision to award the entire contract to one company, the City ignores the law and precedent as set forth by Congress, the President and the Supreme Court, calling for open competition in the American way,” Lester Shafran, Director of the Independent Payphone of New York said. “Winner takes all leads to many losers.”

2 Comments

tmeyer2000

The renders look cute, but in real life where will people sit to use their laptops or tablets? And do you hold your device in your hand while it is charging? A payphone was about a 3 min call, this is a different animal, yet is being treated is a drop replacement. How many USB ports and do you squeeze up to the other person while holding your gadget? Also doesn’t look usable in the rain (freezing USB ports? or rubber plugs?)

frank

will there be any usage limits? could someone practically place a wifi antenna in a window and use this for home broadband? or perhaps a few people in one corner effectively hoarding the whole connection?

in a city as dense as new york i could see these getting overloaded/congested really fast.

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