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Inside NYC’s Bold Plan To Turn Payphones Into Wi-Fi Hotspots

Solar rechargers, community calendars, augmented reality. Is this the public terminal of the future?

Inside NYC’s Bold Plan To Turn Payphones Into Wi-Fi Hotspots
[Image: Flickr user Krystian Olszanski]

The contracts for New York City payphones expire on October 15, with no plans to replace them. So what can a big city do with thousands of payphone terminals?

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The answer might surprise you. Wi-Fi hotspots. Solar panel charging stations. Augmented reality kiosks. This stuff isn’t fantasy, but building out a new network of “smart” terminals is an enormous risk. New Yorkers haven’t cared about payphone boxes for at least a decade, and building one system for a diverse population is a recipe for mediocrity.

Can New York pioneer the smart payphone kiosk, or is this just a misguided tragedy of the commons waiting to happen?


We’re about to find out. After a period of open submissions, NYC has received a number of proposals from companies vying for the chance to re-create the iconic payphone network. Control Group, the folks who built the interactive subway maps (and our neighbors here in downtown Manhattan) have set the bar high for public interactivity. But speculation that tech giants like Google and Samsung may be in the running will push expectations even higher.

Cell Phones Versus Hurricane Sandy

With the bulk of New Yorkers owning and using smartphones, payphones may seem a bit antiquated, but they do still serve a purpose in a pinch.

Councilmember Ben Kallos, who represents Manhattan’s Upper East Side and has a background in software development, says that the first priority is “making sure that phone booths remain,” rather than uprooting them entirely as might be tempting in an era of ubiquitous cell phones.

During Hurricane Sandy, which devastated low-lying coastal areas of New York City, payphones became a lifeline for residents in need of help. With cell phone networks out of commission, payphones, with their old-fashioned copper wire infrastructure, were often the only way residents in distress could call for help or communicate with loved ones.

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“We have these phone booths that have become under-utilized,” says Kallos. “If you walk around my district, you’ll see that many of these booths don’t even have phones in them. And when you’re talking about a brave new world with Sandy, we need to know that everyone has copper to the home and copper to the street corner.”

NYC’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) is the agency tasked with finding a way to both maintain this vital city infrastructure and update it into a more 21st-century form.

“You can take these structures that already exist–and there is still a use case for them in certain dire circumstances; we saw that in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, for instance–but rather than just that, let’s have them be something that people want to use all the time, because they look beautiful and they provide a service that people want anyway,” says Nicholas Sbordone, a spokesman for DoITT.

But getting New Yorkers excited about using payphones, which most see as over-glorified advertising or a vehicle for graffiti, is not an easy task. For DoITT, it meant adopting an ideation model–adaptive reuse–that is often more associated with architecture and design than software and information technology.

“We talk about adaptive reuse internally,” says Sbordone. “I love hearing about stories like that. Personally, the High Line is one of my favorite things in the world. It was able to be reinvented and reused and now everyone loves it. I’d love for something similar to happen with payphones in this city.”

Designing The Payphone Of The Future

Adapting and reinventing a piece of city infrastructure that is at once essential and dated is not easy. The process of reimagining the payphones actually began a couple years ago, while Michael Bloomberg was still mayor.

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DoITT’s first step, Sbordone tells Co.Labs, was to simply get information from people in the know. In city government parlance, that meant issuing a request for information, or RFI.

“The idea was to open this up to folks who are not necessarily from city government,” says Sbordone. “We might not be the ones with the best ideas and we’re certainly not the only ones with good ideas.”

The RFI was followed by the Reinvent Payphones Design Challenge in early 2013 that led to a number of futuristic renditions. Sbordone says that DoITT received over 125 submissions from around the country. (One such entry, from a current old-fashioned payphone operator, Titan, was profiled in Co.Design.)

“Having opened it up to students and designers from across the world, they came up with some really fascinating concepts,” says Sbordone.

DoITT also began a pilot program for free Wi-FI from payphone booths, which ran at 27 locations in all five boroughs. According to Sbordone, it was one of DoITT’s most successful programs and constantly received requests for expansion. NYC’s open data set on the pilot program seems to confirm that.

“The idea was to get as broad-based feedback as possible–from the RFI, the Wi-Fi pilot, the design challenge–and bake it, if you will, into the best request for proposals that we could develop,” says Sbordone.

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Payphones for the Future That Plan for the Future

Beyond basic payphone functionality, prototypes submitted in the design challenge included: augmented reality interfaces, voice and gesture controlled kiosks, movement sensors, and solar panels to make the booths both environmentally friendly and natural disaster resistant.


Kallos, familiar with the ins and outs of the pace of technological improvement, tells Co.Labs that he is paying particular attention to how easily these new information hubs can be ugpraded once installed. He is wary of the city signing onto a solution that ends up being a once and done arrangement, leaving New York with another outdated system years down the line.

“I’m hoping that whoever we choose provides a living wage to employees, has a knowledge transfer provision so that the city uses open hardware and open software, is committed to serving all of our city’s diverse communities, and will make sure that whatever we build here is always state-of-the-art,” says Kallos.

Fitting in the City Landscape

Beyond the baseline needs for a disaster such as Hurricane Sandy, city politicians hope that the new communication hubs will enmesh themselves into the city’s fabric. Councilmember James Vacca, Chair of the Technology Committee, and Councimember Kallos both expressed to me their desires for these new installations to equally serve tourists and city residents.

“I’m excited to bring Wi-Fi Internet access to various parts of our city, perhaps with sightseeing information and calendars of public events,” says Vacca.

The city is effectively offering a company the opportunity to build its own franchises in exchange for the advertising rights on the installations in commercial areas. Presently, payphones in NYC are franchised out to a handful of different companies. But DoITT intends to award this new franchise exclusively to one company or consortium.

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So, while the project will not cost the city any money–and will in fact guarantee the the city $17.5 million in income or 50% of advertising revenue, whichever is more–there are concerns within city government about effectively creating a monopoly on these new communication hubs.

“My main concern is that boroughs outside of Manhattan be served equally,” says Vacca, who represents one of the Bronx’s districts. “DoITT believes one bidder city-wide can be more effectively leveraged to provide coverage to the outer-boroughs. I understand that reasoning, but also have concerns about creating a monopoly.”

The request for proposals that DoITT put out does in fact specifically encourage bidders to state how many new installations they would be willing to build in outer-boroughs and how many non-advertising installations, which would predominately be outside of Manhattan, they would be willing to operate. Sbordone says that both of those numbers will factor heavily in DoITT’s ultimate decision.

Thorny political discussion aside, the potential to revamp city infrastructure with something new and possibly even exciting is not being lost on city government officials.

“New York City has an opportunity to be a global leader on this,” says Kallos. “I’d like to make sure that what we build here can be replicated.”