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Community / Public space

New York's payphones to be replaced by Wi-Fi hotspots

If you need a symbol for how the analogue age has seamlessly morphed into the digital, then look no further than New York City’s phone boxes. Once used to call people, and enact untraceable dodgy deals in films, these now-unused pieces of street furniture are about to be replaced by Wi-Fi hotspot kiosks. 

Around 500 of the aluminium kiosks are due to be installed in 2015, with more planned for following years. They’ll also act as charging stations (like London’s solar powered phone boxes), and will allow users to make free calls anywhere in the US using their mobile phone. Some will also feature “intelligent” ads, which will bankroll the kiosk’s $200m cost. In all, the city hopes they’ll bring in $500m in advertising revenue over the next 12 years.

The move was approved earlier this month by the city’s Franchise and Concession Review Committee, and is the work of a public-private partnership known as LinkNYC, which is also pushing proposals to roll out free, high-speed internet across the five boroughs.

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Image: CityBridge. 

The city has been circling the Wi-Fi hotspot idea for a while now. But some locals were unhappy with the original proposals, which would have seen advertising kiosks with faster internet in richer neighbourhoods, and kiosks with no ads and slower internet in poorer ones. According to the Brooklyn Eagle, the finalised deal includes a greater proportion of the faster advertising kiosks across the city. 

There was also an unfortunate incident in which “beacons” installed in phone boxes turned out to be tracking the location of nearby phone users. Public opinion deemed this a little too 1984, and it led to greater pressure for the the Wi-Fi kiosks to offer digital benefits without, er, spying on the city’s residents. 

That said, the “intelligent” nature of the kiosk’s ads implies that advertisers will have some access to user data. The International Business Times reports that LinkNYC’s privacy policy allows it to “share data with advertisers and use it to serve relevant ads”, though LinkNYC’s website asserts that it “will never share or sell any protected personal information”. This suggests that the kiosks may collect anonymised browsing data, but nothing traceable to the user after they leave the kiosk.

In summary, be warned: don’t browse products on the kiosk’s Wi-Fi unless you’re happy for them appear moments later on a large, glowing screen. 
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