At the corner of 15th Street and Third Avenue in Manhattan is an electric slab resembling the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Another is located diagonally across intersection. Wander toward 16th Street and you'll encounter another pair.
By July, 500 of these devices are expected to be installed throughout New York's five boroughs. Ultimately the devices will number 7,500.
These are the high-speed WiFi kiosks built as part of the LinkNYC partnership between the City of New York and tech and communications companies Intersection, Qualcomm and CIVIQ Smartscapes. Workers started replacing phone booths with the portals last month.
According to the LinkNYC website, and as I found out when I visited a few spots Friday evening, these are about more than free public WiFi, phone calls and interactive displays. They provide a slew of new business opportunities. The LinkNYC website states initial apps will be available within the first few months of operation. By turning sidewalks into connected spaces, the kiosks could revolutionize how people interact with public spaces. That is, once they're switched on. A beta launch is expected soon.
I embarrassingly missed that New York had yet to activate these connection hubs when I headed over to the Gramercy neighborhood to check them out Friday. I stopped at all four LinkNYC points of access in the vicinity and tried in vain to use any of the devices' various features. The dialing pad was unready to place calls. The USB port failed to charge my iPhone. A WiFi signal was nonexistent. Finally I noticed that the tablet screen on each monolith read, "LinkNYC Beta Powering Up Soon!"
At the fourth kiosk stood a man in a long, charcoal pea coat trying to pick up a WiFi signal with his iPhone. The man, a member of a Japanese think tank that researches new technologies, said he was interested in whether the kiosks might be a good fit for other cities around the world. He was about 50 percent certain these devices would be a big deal. First, they present an interesting model for public-private partnerships.
"In general, I'm interested in the relationship among the different stakeholders," the researcher said. He requested anonymity because he did not want his views to be associated with his organization.
Because the city owns the land, a partnership can save on property costs. Because private companies build the device, the city can save on the price of having the kiosks manufactured. With potential revenue opportunities through use of the kiosks as platforms for advertising and other paid uses, all members of the partnership have the potential to bring in cash. All of this is possible without users paying for access to the rectangles that will (presumably soon) dot major New York streets.
Second, the researcher said, the kiosks offer interesting data collection and commercial possibilities. These are basically like giant smartphones. There are opportunities to put sensors on the kiosks to measure things like air quality, rain, or wind pressure; or to keep track of city details such as car and foot traffic patterns. The kiosks could be programmed to dispense information about businesses nearby, or other local services like medical facilities. The could communicate with connected vehicles.
While the researcher was talking, a man and a woman approached the kiosk. The man swooped toward the keyboard intended for phone calls and started tapping the buttons. "Oh, it's not powered up yet," he sighed, continuing to fiddle with the buttons and USB ports. Another man approaches to observe the fuss.
After the small crowd dissipated and moved toward 14th Street, the researcher explained that because free WiFi is already available at a large number of businesses in New York, the kiosks might not catch on. Then again, LinkNYC reports the gigabit speed WiFi- - which is supposed to have a radius of 150 feet from each station -- will perform 100 times faster than most WiFi publicly available. "Logically, it seems like a big project," said the researcher.
There are advantages for businesses and professionals that didn't come up in our 15 minute conversation. International travelers with data plans that don't work in the United States will be able to connect to the internet without having to step into a Starbucks. People could possibly pass up phone service contracts and just rely on the free WiFi signal to support their cell phone connections.
Businesses that don't offer public WiFi -- restaurants, retail stores, some coffee shops -- will, essentially, start offering it. This will drive down the instances of customers passing over a business because it doesn't offer internet access. It will also increase the "showrooming" phenomenon of consumers using their phones to compare in-store retail to online prices of items.
Naturally there will be worries about what happens to the data collected by the portals and who has access to it. People raise similar concerns about pretty much any piece of the Internet of Things. It's worth noting that the WiFi connections will be encrypted and are expected to be pretty secure.
On the whole, New York's new "phone booths" promise to change the city just as much as their push-button predecessors once did. Once they're switched on.