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NYC plans to replace pay phones with super fast Wi-Fi hubs

New York City hopes to turn its pay phones with free public Wi-Fi hotspots in 2015. The hotspots will offer 24/7 Internet access, at speeds up to 1 gigabit per second, across the city.

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    New York City plans to install thousands of Wi-Fi hotspots across the city to give free superfast Internet access to residents. Here, a press image shows a hotspot in Midtown Manhattan.
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It’s safe to say that public pay phones don’t get much use anymore -- which is why New York City plans to transform its 6,400 pay phones into super fast Wi-Fi hotspots that will blanket the city with Internet access at speeds up to a gigabit per second. If the project is successful, it will be the world’s largest, fastest municipal Wi-Fi network -- and city leaders say it won’t cost NYC residents a cent.

LinkNYC, as the plan is called, was unveiled by city officials on Monday. A group of companies called CityBridge (including Qualcomm, Titan, and Control Group) is seeking approval from the city board to begin building and installing ten-foot Wi-Fi hubs across all five boroughs. Unlike many current municipal Wi-Fi projects, which are available only in city centers and only for a few hours a day, LinkNYC will offer 24/7 access across the Big Apple. It will also allow users to make free calls to any phone in the US, as well as to 911 and 311, New York City’s information service number.

The hubs -- or “links,” in the plan’s parlance -- will have touch screens on the side to give access to maps and directions, as well as city services. They will also have charging ports built in, for the benefit of users whose cell phones are running low, and will be able to broadcast citywide alerts during emergencies.

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Officials say the network will be financed by next-generation advertising displays built into each kiosk, which will allow advertisers to fine-tune the ads displayed from block to block. The project is expected to earn $500 million for New York City over the next 12 years, and CityBridge has promised to pay at least $20 million to the city each year, regardless of how much advertising money the hubs bring in. (Compare that with $16.5 million brought in last year by the city’s pay phone network.)

CityBridge plans to begin constructing the new network in 2015, and may eventually install as many as 10,000 hubs across the city. The city plans to auction off some of the old pay phones, which may have some nostalgic value to collectors. And three original phone booths will be preserved, in working order, on the Upper West Side for posterity. That means NYC residents get the benefit of free, super fast Wi-Fi, and Clark Kent will still have his choice of three locations in which to change into Superman.

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