MANHATTAN — The city's ancient network of pay phones will be replaced with an advertisement-supported, free Wi-Fi network that will allow for no-charge calls to anywhere in the United States and bring New York City $20 million in revenue in the first year of the contract.
CityBridge, a consortium of technology, media, communications and design firms, is the winner of a request for proposals to replace the city's 6,400 pay phone installations and will begin introducing up to 10,000 "LinkNYC," devices, known as Links, across the five boroughs next year.
The Links — which look like giant, sleek aluminum thumb drives plugged into the sidewalk — were designed to fit in with the city's landscape. They will provide free hot spots offering Wi-Fi at speeds 100 times faster than current public Wi-Fi and 20 times faster than home Wi-Fi.
That means users will be able to make video calls on the devices.
The Links will also serve as cellphone charging stations, allow people to call 911 and 311, provide a touch screen for access to city services and display ads and public service announcements.
Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications Commissioner Anne Roest said the project "represents an elegant, modern and adaptable solution to one of the pressing needs of our time— the expansion of broadband access."
Businesses in nearby storefronts or people in low floors in apartments next to the Links may also be able to ride on the network. It's estimated that up to 250 people at a time can be served by a single Link.
“With this proposal for the fastest and largest municipal Wi-Fi network in the world — accessible to and free for all New Yorkers and visitors alike — we’re taking a critical step toward a more equal, open and connected city," Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement.
The pay phone replacements will also provide jobs. CityBridge plans to manufacture the Links within the five boroughs and anticipates the project will create up to 150 jobs in industries such as manufacturing and advertising along with 650 support jobs.
The Links will be built at no cost to taxpayers. There will be no handsets and users can make calls by using the touchscreen and the multi-directional microphones. For a little privacy, users will be able to plug in their headsets.
If smartphone users want to save their data they can connect to a Link and make calls using its network.
Users will be protected with an encrypted network that will further reduce security threats by not allowing devices to connect to one another over the network.
For those concerned about privacy, CityBridge says they will not share or sell "protected personal information" and will only collect aggregate data, according to the city.
The Wi-Fi will be easy to use and will not require users to log in and out to use the system.
Under the current contract, which runs until 2026 with an option to extend it until 2029, CityBridge will install 7,500 Links within the first six years with the option to expand to 10,000.
Eventually, the city will leave only three pay phones in Manhattan, which have phone booths, as a homage to "living New York City history," city officials said.
If approved by the city’s Franchise and Concession Review Committee, the first devices will start appearing at the end of 2015. A public hearing will be held on the proposal.