While it may seem like the humble pay phone is long dead, the city of New York has an idea that could bring it into the 21st century.

In fact, to keep up with the times, New York is transforming its pay phones into free Wi-Fi hubs, in effect creating the largest free municipal Wi-Fi network in the world.

"It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reimagine the pay phone and develop a revolutionary new technology for the citizens of New York and its visitors," said Scott Goldsmith, chief commercial officer for Titan, a multimedia transit and outdoor advertising company. Goldsmith also is a manager for City Bridge, which is the name of the organization behind the project. "It's a chance to make the lives of each and every New Yorker better."

CityBridge is essentially a consortium of companies that include the likes of Titan, Control Group, Qualcomm and so on. Each of these companies is well-versed in areas such as advertising, technology, hardware design and more, ensuring the Wi-Fi stations are able to withstand the weather of New York. The group won the franchise Nov. 17 when the city's Franchise and Concession Review Committee (FCRC) voted on the proposal. CityBridge is to share half its revenue from ad sales with the city and will provide minimum payments starting at $20 million annually regardless of sales. The agreement calls for 10,000 of the stations throughout the five boroughs to be done within 6 years. The first 500 units are to be open by the start of 2016.

The stations, which will be called Links, will still allow for users to make phone calls but will not look like the classic pay phone. The stations are sleeker and modern in design and will make use of a touchscreen to make calls. In fact, users can make free phone calls to anywhere in the U.S. from the stations. Users can also plug in their headphones to make phone calls, charge their mobile devices, or use the microphone and speaker on the station. CityBridge also plans to tie its network into an ongoing project to offer wireless and Wi-Fi signals at subway stations across NYC.

The technology goes far beyond simple Wi-Fi connections, however. The stations are set to offer full gigabit speeds, putting to shame other public Wi-Fi systems. At this kind of speed a user could download a full movie in less than a minute. Not only that, but the range of the Wi-Fi should extend to around 150 feet away from the station.

"I am hopeful, given the scrutiny we put them under, they are making sure that they operate in a way that won't make [the units] obsolete in a very short period of time," said Mark Weprin, a member of the city council. "Hopefully they will continue to become state of the art as we go through it."

The LinkNYC project is the newest in a long procession of municipal Wi-Fi projects. Dozens of U.S. cities have tried, and often failed, to create such services. They are beneficial to cities because they promote economic activity and narrow the digital divide between those who can afford high-speed Internet and those who cannot.

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