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City Payphones to Become WiFi Hotspots


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City Payphones to Become WiFi Hotspots

COLUMBUS CIRCLE — The city's payphones are about to start pulling double-duty as wireless hotspots.

Officials unveiled a pilot program Wednesday that will transform some of the city's thousands of aging payphone kiosks into wireless hubs, offering free, unlimited Internet access for smartphones, laptops and other wireless devices.

"One of the No. 1 things that we hear, that Mayor Bloomberg hears when he's speaking with New Yorkers, is that they want more public WiFi," said Rachel Sterne, the city's Chief Digital Officer, who joined officials on the pedestrian plaza at the corner of West 58th Street and Broadway, near Columbus Circle, where one of the 10 initial hubs is placed.

Powered by "military grade antennas," which are affixed directly to the tops of kiosks and feed off their power, the hotspots' signals stretch about 100 to 300 feet, said Peter Izzo, senior operations executive at payphone operator Van Wagner, which is providing the $2,000 a-pop service for free.

The rollout is part of a larger effort by the city to determine the future of its payphones, which many complain are out-of-date. The city also issued a Request for Information Wednesday seeking suggestions about the potential payphone of the future and the features it might include.

"It's not trying to replace the payphone. It's what other service would you like to see?" said Rahul Merchant, the city's Chief Information and Innovation Officer, who mentioned the possibility of links to the 311 system, business listings or other potentially useful services.

The city’s current franchise agreement for its payphone services is set to expire in Oct. 2014, and officials have been exploring potential new options to bring the kiosks into the 21st century. 

Izzo said the hub near Columbus Square had already logged 24,000 minutes of use during its testing period in June, and said that he sees huge potential city-wide.

"Within 12 months, we could have the city blanketed in WiFi," he said. "We're getting reading for the boroughs to be cranked up."

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