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City Payphones to Become WiFi Hotspots

By Jill Colvin | July 11, 2012 12:28pm
Terrill Hughes shows off the working Internet on his iPad.
Terrill Hughes shows off the working Internet on his iPad.
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DNAinfo/Jill Colvin

COLUMBUS CIRCLE — The city's payphones are about to start pulling double-duty as wireless hotspots.

Officials unveiled a pilot program Wednesday that will transform some of the city's thousands of aging payphone kiosks into wireless hubs, offering free, unlimited Internet access for smartphones, laptops and other wireless devices.

"One of the No. 1 things that we hear, that Mayor Bloomberg hears when he's speaking with New Yorkers, is that they want more public WiFi," said Rachel Sterne, the city's Chief Digital Officer, who joined officials on the pedestrian plaza at the corner of West 58th Street and Broadway, near Columbus Circle, where one of the 10 initial hubs is placed.

Powered by "military grade antennas," which are affixed directly to the tops of kiosks and feed off their power, the hotspots' signals stretch about 100 to 300 feet, said Peter Izzo, senior operations executive at payphone operator Van Wagner, which is providing the $2,000 a-pop service for free.

The rollout is part of a larger effort by the city to determine the future of its payphones, which many complain are out-of-date. The city also issued a Request for Information Wednesday seeking suggestions about the potential payphone of the future and the features it might include.

"It's not trying to replace the payphone. It's what other service would you like to see?" said Rahul Merchant, the city's Chief Information and Innovation Officer, who mentioned the possibility of links to the 311 system, business listings or other potentially useful services.

The city’s current franchise agreement for its payphone services is set to expire in Oct. 2014, and officials have been been exploring potential new options to bring the kiosks into the 21st century.

Izzo said the hub near Columbus Square had already logged 24,000 minutes of use during its testing period in June, and said that he sees huge potential city-wide.

"Within 12 months, we could have the city blanketed in WiFi," he said. "We're getting reading for the boroughs to be cranked up."

Terrill Hughes, 29, who works for Van Wagner, and tested out the signal on his iPad, said he would have loved to have had access to the service while he was a student at John Jay College, just up the street.

"Had this been here when I went to school, I would have totally been out here doing my homework in the plaza," he said.

"It's summertime in New York," he added. "Instead of being cooped up in a coffee shop, you can get out here and enjoy the views."

As of April 23, 2012, there were 12,729 active public payphones on the city's sidewalks, according to DoITT — down from approximately 45,000 payphones in the five boroughs at their 1980s peak.

New Yorkers have long complained the kiosks are bulky eyesores that take up valuable sidewalk space and serve as magnets for criminal activity, including drug dealing, alcohol consumption, sexual activity and public urination.

According to surveys conducted in Downtown's Community Board 1 and Midtown's 34th Street Partnership district, a whopping 40 to 60 percent of current phones are out of service at any time.

The 10 initial locations are:


402 West Broadway

458 Seventh Avenue

28 West 48th Street

410 Madison Avenue

1609 Broadway

1790 Broadway

230 West 95th Street


545 Albee Square

2 Smith Street


30-94 Steinway St.

Additional locations, including the Bronx and Staten Island, are expected to be up and running soon. Users can log on by selecting “Free WiFi/NYC Free Public WiFi” on their mobile devices.