Operator, won’t you help me place this call?

A 9-foot-tall, narrow structure installed this past week on a Manhattan sidewalk is signaling a plan to turn payphones into what’s billed as the world’s biggest and fastest municipal Wi-Fi network.

The first of at least 7,500 planned hot spots are due to go online early next year, promising superfast and free Wi-Fi service, new street phones with free calling, ports to charge personal phones and a no-cost windfall for the city.

With some cities nationwide making renewed pushes for public Wi-Fi after an earlier wave of enthusiasm faded, New York officials say their project is democratizing data access while modernizing outmoded street phones.

For now, the first hot spot is still being tested and sits under a gray cover. But some passers-by like the sound of what’s in store.

“It’s always helpful” to have Wi-Fi to reduce the bite that apps and web-surfing take out of cellular data service, which is capped in many consumers’ plans, Jack Thomas said this week while texting near the dormant kiosk.

But others have qualms about New Yorkers linking their devices to a public network as they stroll down the street, though the city has said data will be encrypted and any information harvested for advertising will be anonymized.

“I think it makes us all more vulnerable to wrongdoers,” Bee Mosca said as she eyed the future hot spot.

Payphones may seem like telecom relics when 68 percent of Americans own smartphones, according to the Pew Research Center on Internet, Science & Technology. But about 8,200 payphones still dot New York streets.

Some were pressed into service amid outages after 2012’s Superstorm Sandy, but their numbers and usage have declined overall, and 37 percent of those inspected last year were inoperable.

The city experimented with providing Wi-Fi from a few payphones in 2012, then hatched the current, eight-year “LinkNYC” plan.

 

By Jennifer Peltz for Washington Post

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