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Google May Turn 7,000 New York City Payphones Into WiFi Hotspots

Want free wifi in New York City? Soon you may be able to "Google" it.

by Sam Gustin
Jul 22 2014, 6:04pm
Image: John Liu/Flickr

Want free wifi in New York City? Soon you may be able to "Google" it.

The internet search icon was one of 60 organizations that met in May to review New York City's ambitious plan to turn 7,300 payphone kiosks into free wifi hotspots, according to a document released by the city's Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT), the agency spearheading the project.

Google was joined by city officials and other tech heavyweights, including IBM, Samsung, and Verizon Wireless, to discuss New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's plan to transform the largely unused relics of 20th century communication into one of the largest free public wifi networks in the country—one designed to blanket the Big Apple’s five boroughs with free wireless internet access.

“We're excited to have received a number of substantial proposals, which are now under review," DoITT spokesperson​ Nicholas Sbordone told Motherboard. He declined to say how many proposals have been received or which companies have submitted them, citing city procurement procedures. Kelly Mason, a Google spokesperson, declined to comment.

If Google wins the franchise, it would be just the latest foray by the tech giant into broadband internet service. Over the last two years, Google has announced fiber-based, gigabit-speed broadband initiatives in Kansas City, Austin, and Provo. Earlier this year, the company announced plans to work with nine major US metro areas to explore bringing the company’s super-fast internet to even more people.

New York City's plan is just the latest example of a municipality working to forge a public-private partnership to provide improved broadband service to citizens. As internet access becomes an increasingly indispensable part of our personal and professional lives, cities around the country are racing to provide better connectivity to citizens.

The explosion of mobile phone usage rendered the Big Apple's payphone kiosks largely obsolete. Today, they function primarily as street-level advertising billboards. Three companies—Van Wagner Kiosk Advertising, Titan Outdoor Communications and Telebeam Telecommunications Corporation—control 84 percent of the kiosks, under contracts with the city that expire this year.

Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg launched a pilot project to explore the idea of transforming the payphones into wifi hotspots. De Blasio, who has made expanding broadband a key priority, has picked up the ball and run with it. Those contracts expire this year.

Under the mayor's plan, new contracts would be issued “for the installation, operation, and maintenance of up to 10,000 public communication points distributed across the five boroughs,” the city said in a statement earlier this year. In addition to wifi access, the kiosks would also continue to offer payphone service.

The city says the new franchise will produce $17.5 million in guaranteed annual revenue for city coffers through the end of June 2026. Potential franchisees would make money via advertising on the existing billboards as well as digital advertising on wifi launch pages.

Last year Google introduced a plan to provide free public wifi in New York's southwest Chelsea neighborhood near its mammoth headquarters. The company also offers free wifi in its home city of Mountain View, California.

Of course, Google's various free wifi initiatives aren't purely altruistic; the search titan benefits when more people use broadband internet service. The more Google searches get executed, the more money Google makes.

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