By Joy Bergmann
When LinkNYC kiosks started being installed earlier this year, Mayor de Blasio and other officials touted how these “Public Communications Structures” would further the “goal of leveling the playing field and providing every New Yorker with access” to free, superfast Wi-Fi connections as well as free domestic telephone calls and device charging.
“The big goal is addressing digital inequality,” said project visionary Daniel Doctoroff, CEO of Sidewalk Labs, in an interview, estimating that three million New Yorkers do not have access to broadband. “Without fast access to the Internet, you cannot have equal opportunity.”
Some Upper West Siders, however, are wondering if the current sites of active Links match up with those stated intentions.
“The five kiosks in my area [67th and Broadway] are in front of higher-end buildings,” one woman wrote to WSR. “There are none in front of [NYCHA’s Amsterdam Houses] just a few blocks away. Seems like something is off about this.”
Here’s what WSR has learned.
Currently there are over 40 LinkNYC kiosks operating along Broadway between 110th Street and 66th Street. Each Link’s WiFi signal has a stated range of up to 150 feet (though some users say it can go farther). These Links could be considered as conveniently serving low-income UWS residents living in places like Euclid Hall [273 units at 86th and Broadway], The Marseilles [134 units at 103rd and Broadway] and Regent Family Residence [140 families at 104th and Broadway].
NYCHA residents living in Amsterdam Houses [Amsterdam Avenue between 61st and 66th, Wise Towers [90-91st Streets between Amsterdam and Columbus] and Frederick Douglass Houses [100-104th Streets and Amsterdam] do not yet have active Links on their blocks. LinkNYC says that situation will change, firstly along upper Amsterdam.
WSR spoke to residents about an erected, but not-yet-activated Link at 101st and Amsterdam, near the 830 Amsterdam NYCHA building. A mother and teenage daughter said they looked forward to the 9.5 feet-tall addition to their streetscape. “We already use the ones down on 96th,” said the mother. “We will definitely be using this one for charging and Wi-Fi. It’s great.”
A young man cast a more skeptical eye. “There’s nothing free in life,” he said, “You start using it, and liking it and what happens? Next thing you know, it’s five dollars. And that could be a hidden camera in there.”
Users are paying for the free service: with their eyeballs. Advertising revenue pays for the whole kit and caboodle. And as Daniel Doctoroff mentioned in that same interview, LinkNYC is a business venture: “We expect to make a lot of money from this.”
The program is a public-private partnership between the City’s Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications [DOITT] and CityBridge, LLC, a consortium including Intersection [comprised of Sidewalk Labs, an Alphabet (Google) company, and a merger between Control Group and Titan], Qualcomm and CIVIQ Smartscapes.
CityBridge won a 12-year franchise agreement with the City to install 7,500 LinkNYC kiosks across the five boroughs as a way to repurpose derelict pay phone infrastructure and benefit the public by providing free Internet access. The City will be paid no less than $500 million by CityBridge; CityBridge will also pay all costs related to the project, estimated at over $200 million, including building hundreds of miles of new, fiber-optic cable.
Which brings us back to the question of why the first round of UWS Links has clustered along Broadway.
A combination of factors, including density of pay phone sites and network installation feasibility, are key to siting the Links, a CityBridge spokesman told WSR. Every kiosk requires coordination with players including, but not limited to, ConEd, Verizon, DOT and the City.
As part of the agreement, CityBridge agreed to take on this existing infrastructure on an “as is” basis. And as with any major project, there are surprises lurking under the streets. Given the vagaries, CityBridge won’t commit to many firm installation dates.
They say Douglass Houses residents should expect nearby Links on Amsterdam to go live in the coming weeks. As for other NYCHA blocks, CityBridge said, “We don’t have an estimate,” but there will be “thousands more in Manhattan.” Multiple Links can and have appeared on a single block – for example Broadway between 72nd and 73rd – which is allowed so long as each Link is 50 feet away from the next.
Not everyone is thrilled. Preservation group Landmarks West! blasted the kiosks in testimony to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, “…the design of these structures is an unabashed billboard clogging increasingly cluttered streets.” LPC nevertheless approved the project.
A City spokesperson from DOITT urged UWS residents to keep an open mind, “Links are sleeker structures than the pay phones they replaced, leaving a smaller footprint [about a foot wide] on the neighborhood’s sidewalks. [They] will also attract consumers, helping drive local business.”