There are few pieces of infrastructure in any city more iconic than the payphone. The payphone has been a time travel machine, and a safe haven, and a comedic device.
It has not, however, for a very long time — for most of us — been used to make phone calls. For that reason, cities have been trying to figure out what to do with these outdated assets, and how to re-imagine them as telecom infrastructure for a modern era when most of us have our own cell phones.
New York on Monday unveiled the most ambitious plan yet for the payphone of the future, which will, among things, require no pay to make domestic phones calls, and function as much more than a phone.
The city announced Monday that it had selected a consortium of advertising, technology and telecom companies to deploy throughout the city thousands of modern-day payphones that will offer 24-hour, free WiFi connections, free calls to anywhere in the U.S., touchscreen displays with direct access to city services, maps and directions for tourists, and charging stations (for the cell phones you’d rather use).
The devices will also be capable of connecting people directly to emergency responders, and broadcasting alerts from the city during emergencies like Hurricane Sandy.
The whole system, city officials said, will constitute the largest free municipal WiFi network in the world. All of it will be funded by an astonishingly large revenue stream from sophisticated digital advertising — picture different and constantly fine-tuned ads depending on the block — that is projected to generate for the city $500 million over the next 12 years. Fifty percent of that revenue will go to the city.
The end product will no longer be called a “payphone.” The city is calling the new devices “links.”
The consortium, called CityBridge, says construction of the network will begin in 2015. Ultimately, as many as 10,000 of the machines will be installed across New York, replacing roughly 6,500 old-school payphones.
The city hopes to make money auctioning off some of the old payphones, which may retain some sentimental value, if not much functional allure. The new contract also calls for preserving three original phone booths on the Upper West Side — as, yes, operational phones — for posterity.