Gather around, children, and I’ll tell you about the olden days of analog communications. To make a phone call outdoors, you had to duck inside a sweltering booth or under a shelter, grab a huge germ-y handset that was chained to a steel safe, and stuff actual metal money into a grimy slot. Then the coins would vanish and the call would fail, and you’d go hunting for another telephone house in order to repeat the operation. Now those relics of antiquity are quickly vanishing from the sidewalks of New York, replaced by nine-and-a-half-foot digital billboards that pump out back-lit ads and a cone of free Wi-Fi. So far, 134 LinkNYC kiosks are up and running in midtown, with hundreds more on the way by summer, and a total of 7,500 to 10,000 scheduled to arrive by 2024.
I located one of the vanguard units on the corner of Eighth Avenue and 58th Street, where I found a man who was jabbing the touch screen and enjoying himself immensely. “This is the best thing that ever happened in New York,” said the man, who identified himself as Michael from Connecticut. “This is my plaything, man. It’s the ultimate in free-ness!” Michael, who had few teeth but seemingly plenty of time, said he had been using the new kiosk pretty much constantly since it was installed the week before. He gave me a quick tour: free calling to any number in the country, a large 911 emergency button, two USB charging ports, an audio jack for headphones, and unlimited internet access on the embedded tablet. “You like Steely Dan?” he asked, and in seconds we were dancing to a YouTube video of “Do It Again.” Michael asked me for a dollar for soup, which I gave him; the internet may be free now, but lunch still isn’t.
Most people will never need to touch the kiosks, which were developed by a consortium of companies called CityBridge and which blast Wi-Fi in a 150-to-250-foot radius. Broadband occupies a middle ground between a private luxury and public utility, so it will be a long time before the city considers it a right or distributes it evenly. By and large, the new units will stand in the same spots old payphones did, which means that, say, housing projects in the outer boroughs will get spotty coverage at best. If the new network’s benefits seem marginal to those of us who, unlike Michael, have our own phones and data plans, that’s partly intentional. It’s not meant to compete with home or business cable providers, or even to replace free public hotspots in parks and cafés, but rather to create corridors of seamless connectivity. Already, you can sign up once, then stroll down Third Avenue with your smartphone at the ready and get handed off seamlessly from one link to the next. There are trade-offs, of course: Hackers, cops, and the NSA may be able to track you digitally that way, too, though some devices can connect to an encrypted private version of the network. The city will reap a projected $500 million over the contract’s initial 12-year span, and the public will pay by absorbing another barrage of glowing ads.
It’s worth noting that the kiosks were installed under the aegis of the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (which ran the prehistoric pay phones), rather than the Department of Transportation (which manages streets and sidewalks). This may seem like an arcane bureaucratic distinction, but in the last dozen years, the DOT has effectively reshaped life on the streets. It’s installed new bike lanes and racks, benches, bus shelters, medians, crossings, newsstands, and (only four, alas!) public toilets, all with an eye to making public space less chaotic and more welcoming to a broader range of people. That agency could, for instance, have suggested twinning Wi-Fi kiosks with benches so that laptop users can use their laps and people can charge their phones without standing guard. The DOT might also have pointed out that Wi-Fi units that are taller than bus shelters have a significant impact on the public realm, and that such sizable and durable pieces of street furniture deserve a more supple form than the oversize slab of aluminum and shiny black glass supplied by Antenna Design.
Even in its early stages, LinkNYC nourishes a dream of New Yorkers who are constantly in motion and perpetually plugged in. (Forgive the pre-wireless metaphor.) For now, that fantasy is marred by spotty cell service. Eventually, though, we will all be able to continue a video conference as we run to our next meeting, keep a multiplayer game going on the uptown bus, or binge on Real Housewives of Dallas without ever slowing our pace or pausing to buffer. And so the kiosks point to a future in which the way we use our streets depends on what we can do with our phones. The question is, do we really want to foster a citizenry of hunched zombies ceaselessly marching by our gizmos’ blue glare?