NY Payphones Reused as Wi-Fi Hotspots

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City payphones are getting converted to Wi-Fi hotspots and may even be turned into charging stations.
Nicholas Sbordone

THE GIST

- Payphones in New York are being repurposed as Wi-Fi hotspots.

- The city is testing ten locations near parks and other public spaces.

"New York City by far has more payphones than any other city," said Nicholas Sbordone, a spokesman for the city government.

For years, there have been attempts by private companies to keep these data nodes relevant in the era of the cellphone by adding Wi-Fi. Verizon, for example, talked up access to Wi-Fi from its payphones for customers of its landline Internet service. And TCC Teleplex did a pilot project of a paid Wi-Fi service.

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Now the City has taken a baby step, persuading contractors who run payphones to add free Wi-Fi to ten of them -- hitting each borough -- as a trial to see how they go over with New Yorkers.

"You might not necessarily stop to use Wi-Fi at a payphone if you're walking by…if it's not in a place that's inviting to sit in," said Sbordone. So the city has targeted payphones near parks and other public spaces for the trial.

Why would the payphone providers -- Van Wagner and Titan -- give away Wi-Fi for free? Perhaps to hedge bets. Public telephones are far from a growing industry in a country where nearly everyone has a cellphone (and often a smartphone).

But most laptops and tablets are not connected to cellular service, and with most wireless carriers imposing data caps, offloading to free Wi-Fi might be an appealing option for smartphones, as well.

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Or it might not be. The City is waiting to find out by conducting a request for information project to get citizen feedback.

The current agreement between the City and payphone providers expires in October 2014, and the City is hoping to figure out what to do with the stations before then. Sbordone said that City payphones might, for example, also become charging stations, if that's what people want.

"If there's a public amenity that we can work with these companies to provide, great," he said.