When the sleek, black LinkNYC kiosks began popping up around New York in 2016, it felt sort of like the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Technologically advanced monoliths from the future had suddenly materialized to drag us all into the future. Two years later, the internet-connected sidewalk kiosks—which offer free Wi-Fi, free calling and USB ports to charge devices—can boast more than 5 million registered Wi-Fi users who log an average of 20 million free sessions a week. Additionally, 500,000 phone calls are made on the kiosks every month.
So can we look forward to a sunny future where we can all cancel our private internet plans and log onto a free public network that blankets the city? Unfortunately, no. “LinkNYC kiosks are primarily designed for commercial corridors,” explains Kate Blumm, Assistant Commissioner at the NYC Department of Information Technology. “It’s just one piece of the mayor’s larger plan to bring affordable high-speed internet to every New Yorker by 2025.” Additionally, the 1,700 kiosks that have been installed across the five boroughs (of a planned 7,500) only offer a Wi-Fi range of about 150 feet.
When NYC originally conceptualized the project that eventually became LinkNYC, it was looking for a modern replacement for the city’s aging payphone infrastructure. The winning proposal, from CityBridge, envisioned futuristic metal totems spread out across all five boroughs with giant, high-res screens on either side. Advertisements shown on the screens would then cover the cost of the kiosks themselves, and the city would be gifted with free, fast Wi-Fi infrastructure. To date, however, some of the most compelling uses of the kiosks have come from those screens rather than the Wi-Fi.
“We were surprised by how many people have been using them to make calls when everyone has cell phone, but a big part of the kiosks has been the content we display on the screens,” says Jennifer Hensley, the president of Link. “We’re able to provided curated content to help people make the most of their city through partnerships with local government and cultural institutions.” That’s ranged from a recent initiative where New Yorkers could literally register to vote using the kiosks to information on good restaurants to hit up in the area, fun facts about the city and details on upcoming local events that those passing by might want to attend.
One of the criticisms of the kiosks from privacy advocates has been the inclusion of two cameras above the displays (along with a third camera above the tablet which could possibly be used for video calling in the future). Hensley insists, however, that the cameras above the New York devices are primarily for monitoring the structures themselves. “They’re expensive pieces of hardware out on the streets so we want to make sure they’re safe,” she says.
Along with the addition of thousands of more kiosks in the coming years, Hensley predicts that the devices will play a large part in coming years with helping New Yorkers have all the information they need to be counted in the 2020 census. However, by that time, Link will be helping more than just New Yorkers. The company has plans to expand into Newark this week and will soon spread to Philadelphia by the end of the year.