In 2014, in a bid to replace the more than 11,000 aging payphones scattered across New York City’s pedestrian walkways with more functional fixtures, Mayor Bill de Blasio launched a competition — the Reinvent Payphones initiative — calling on private enterprises, residents, and nonprofits to submit designs for replacements.
In the end, LinkNYC — a plan proposed by consortium CityBridge — secured a contract from the city, beating out competing proposals with electricity-generating piezoelectric pressure plates and EV charging stations. The plan was to spend $200 million installing as many as 10,000 kiosks, or Links, that would supply free, encrypted gigabit Wi-Fi to passers-by within 150 feet. They would have buttons that link directly to 911 and New York’s 311 service and free USB charging stations for smartphones, plus wired handsets that would allow free calls to all 50 states and Washington, D.C. And perhaps best of all, they wouldn’t cost the city a dime; advertising would subsidize expansion and ongoing maintenance.
The Links wouldn’t just get urbanites online and let them juice their phones, though. The idea was to engage users, too, principally with twin 55-inch high-definition displays and tethered Android tablets with map functions. Mike Gamaroff, head of innovation at Kinetic, characterized the Links in 2016 as “first and foremost a utility for the people of the city, that also doubles up as an advertising network.”
Two years after the deployment of prototypical kiosks in Manhattan, Intersection — a part of the aforementioned CityBridge, which with Qualcomm and CIVIQ Smartscapes manages the kiosks — is ready to declare them a success. The roughly 1,600 Links recently hit three milestones: 1 billion sessions, 5 million users, and 500,000 phone calls a month.
“We have an opportunity to communicate with people as they navigate their day,” Intersection senior consumer marketing manager Amanda Giddon told VentureBeat in a phone interview. “My mandate is to help make Link a part of the community through content and content strategy — really, anything that [makes] New Yorkers feel like tourists in their own city [or] even help tourists feel like New Yorkers through useful, actionable information.”
At any given time, the Link kiosks’ screens host news headlines from the Associated Press, comics, weather info, real-time alerts from the Office of Emergency Management, and creative from a mix of roughly 50 other campaigns. Also on tap are hundreds of hyperlocal factoids — dubbed “NYC Fun Facts” and “This Day in New York” — about people (“Martin Hildebrandt opened the United States’ first tattoo business in New York City in 1870”), places (“There’s a superhero supply store in Brooklyn”), and things (“New York City gets 15 times more snow than the South Pole each year”). There are close to 400 trivia tidbits in all, with new ones joining the collection each week.
Gibbon researches the facts herself, typically spending a few hours a week poring through a range of sources, including Broadway.org, Grow NYC, Time Magazine, FiveThirtyEight, and the National History Museum. She dutifully fact-checks them and copies them to a master spreadsheet before deciding which ones will make the cut.
“It’s been really great to see people writing in about the content they see. We’ve created some moments of awe for people, and if I can create a moment of awe for someone on a daily basis, then I’m doing my job right,” Giddon said.
When the kiosks aren’t alerting pedestrians to, say, the percentage of New Yorkers riding elevators at any time, they display real-time bus arrivals and local maps. But the bulk of their programming consists of rotating regular, seasonal, and limited-time content collaborations with organizations, publications, and government agencies.
“We survey our users quite frequently [for ideas] … and we go to great lengths to make sure our [content] is contextually relevant,” said Giddon. “[We’re] pioneering this publishing approach and public space and are really eager to get feedback and adjust as we continue to expand.”
One recent example is a partnership with the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) that showcased the work of local artists. Another is “Popular Places Near You,” a Foursquare-powered feature that shows top restaurants and entertainment hubs within walking distance.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Intersection worked with the Museum of the City of New York’s Beyond Suffrage exhibit to feature NYC women in politics, with the NYC Department of Records to curate historical photography (localized at a neighborhood level), and with Silicon Harlem and Global Kids to showcase legendary African Americans during Black History Month.
Intersection’s also leveraging the kiosks to promote civic engagement.
In April, it teamed up with the New York City Council to roll out Participatory Budgeting New York City, which let residents as young as 11 vote via the kiosk tablets on how the city will allocate its $40 million public budget. And it launched an awareness campaign to get New Yorkers registered to vote in advance of the November 2018 general elections. (The latter integrated with the city’s voter registration data to show a real-time count of the number of people signed up.) It also posts Community Board meeting notices and local road closures and through its LinkLocal program lets small businesses advertise for free on select kiosks around the city.
Intersection has experimented with social services, too. In January, users were able to browse and enroll in health plans through New York State of Health insurance marketplace.
For some New Yorkers, the Link hubs aren’t just a convenience — they’re a lifeline. A 2014 study by the Office of the New York City Comptroller found that 27 percent of NYC residents surveyed — 40 percent of whom had less than a high school education — lacked broadband internet at home.
Without a reliable internet connection, students can’t access online classroom resources, out-of-work adults can’t submit job applications, and families struggling to make ends meet can’t take advantage of social services. As the New York Times wrote in August 2016: “In urban areas, rural areas, and everywhere in between, students who lack internet service at home have difficulty doing their nightly schoolwork. Many of them cobble together whatever connectivity they can, picking up free Wi-Fi signals in front of libraries, in school parking lots, and at fast-food restaurants.”
Four years ago, De Blasio touted the Links as a sign of progress in the fight for unimpeded internet access. “[They’re] the fastest and largest municipal Wi-Fi network in the world,” he said, “[and] a critical step toward a more equal, open, and connected city for every New Yorker, in every borough.”
But the accolades tend to ignore the fact that LinkNYC isn’t strictly a philanthropic effort. Advertisements that run alongside Intersection’s programming were expected to generate between $500 million and a billion dollars over the next 12 years. (CityBridge and the city split the ad revenue equally.)
And the kiosks themselves aren’t without controversy.
The connected tablets initially had an internet browser, but Intersection disabled it in response to complaints about users browsing pornographic material. It also added vision-assistance tools after the National Federation of the Blind sued the City of New York and LinkNYC, arguing that the tablets lacked basic accessibility features.
Revenue, meanwhile, has missed expectations. Over the first two years, the city collected $43.4 million in payments, narrowly beating the $42.5 million minimum CityBridge guaranteed. Under an amended deal, CityBridge will delay paying the city its share of revenues (above the minimum payments) until the last year of the contract, when they’ll be due with 10 percent interest.
And as The Intercept recently pointed out, consumer advocacy groups and activists, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Stop LinkNYC, and ReThink LinkNYC, have brought attention to the hubs’ potential for mass surveillance.
Each hub is equipped with three cameras and 30 sensors capable of, among other things, “monitor[ing] pedestrian, bike, and car traffic; track[ing] passing wireless devices; listen[ing] to street noise; and … identify[ing] abandoned packages.”
None of this has scared away investors, who extended $150 million in financing to Intersection last year.
As Intersection and CityBridge eye expansion to new markets, Giddon said, they’ll take into account feedback they’ve received so far.
“I think it’ll definitely be a combination of lessons learned and ensuring we add a little local flavor [to our programing],” Giddon said. “We have research teams in New York and Philadelphia who’ve conducted some preliminary focus group testing to understand how to best serve the community. We’re really open to feedback, and we’ve done a lot of work here and look forward to seeing how it’s received.
Intersection hopes to install 7,500 Link kiosks by 2026, when its contract with the city expires. In June, it launched InLinkUK, a partnership with telecom provider BT and outdoor advertising agency Primesight to replace over 1,000 pay phones in major U.K. cities with kiosks. In September, 100 kiosks hit the sidewalks of Philadelphia as part of its LinkPHL program. And by the end of this year, 45 will come to Newark.