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Wi-Fi Bus Stops and Wired Phone Booths: The Future of the Digital City

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If you happen to be reading this during a morning commute, on a train or bus or perhaps as you're walking to work, take a second to look up. You're likely surrounded by a swarm of others like yourself, staring not ahead, but at a screen, perhaps anxious about slow download speeds with an eye on dwindling battery life. In short, you're the perfect example of why cities want to become wired, fast. A combination of the always-on mobile lifestyle, and the growing number of wired, Internet of Things devices playing a part in city operations, means that increasingly, there's a need for high-speed connections everywhere.

Two ambitious projects in the nation's biggest cities see old-school infrastructure forming the backbone of free public Wi-Fi systems. In Los Angeles, advertising giant JCDecaux and Outfront Media have run a successful pilot program with the city this summer featuring a pair of wired, smart bus stations near City Hall, which provide free Wi-Fi hotspots, transit information and USB ports for recharging mobile devices. In New York, the Google-backed Sidewalk Labs venture has become an investor in a member of the consortium that runs the LinkNYC initiative, a city plan to convert old, unused phone booths into Wi-Fi hotspots and civic information centers. The differences in where they're placing these digital portals aren't as important as the similarities: both projects envision pubic-private partnerships as central to building out the digital framework of a connected, 21st century city.

"There will never be a time when cities have enough money to do what they want, and everything citizens expect," says J. Francois Nion, Co-Managing Director of the Outfront/JCDecaux partnership developing wired bus stop in Los Angeles. "We're clearly moving from a physical to a digital world, so how do you blur the line between both? Our bus stations provide a platform for digital services. It's a perfect marriage."

Wi-Fi is likely to be the next big public utility, one that will be expected from municipalities around the country. Other cities have set up free Wi-Fi networks to some degree or another, but the digital divide and lack of access in many areas, as well as the potential to use these platforms for civic engagement, makes them ripe for innovation.

Outfront/JCDecaux and Los Angeles launched the bus station prototypes in May, the result of brainstorms about what the future of these types of transit stops might look like. For JCDecaux, an advertising giant who owns and operates transit stations and billboards around the globe, the move makes perfect sense. It's a means to engage, entertain and become more environmentally conscious: offering Wi-Fi, recharging stations, real-time transit information and iBeacon technology, the stations are also retrofitted with LED lights to reduce energy consumption.

"Riders don't want to use their data plan to search for when the bus is coming, and don't want to use their batteries to search for information," says Nion. "What do riders need, what do they want, what's attractive? The question now is, where do we go next?"

For Nion, the next phase of what has proven to be a successful program includes expanding to 15 additional stations in Greater Los Angeles. He also envisions a time when the 1,800 stations the company controls in Los Angeles (still a fraction of the total) could become digital hubs. An app could connect users to locally relevant civic information, and the ad-supported network could even provide coupons. He sees his company building out what could become a testing ground right as investment in transit is increasing in many cities, he says, providing a model for other markets. These pre-existing structures could, in effect, be the face of civic outreach and engagement.

"Right now, we have a laboratory," he says. "It's a public-private partnership, and it's encouraging to see that we can evolve and make it happen fast. I'm not sure what the future will be but it's a good step in the right direction."

That vision of a more connected citizenry also underlies the LinkNYC plan. According to Colin O'Donnell, Chief Innovation Officer of Intersection, which was formed via an investment from Sidewalk Labs, the pay phone booths-turned-hotspots and data portals offer not just a way to increase download speeds and access, but give the city a more direct connection to its citizens. The physical/digital network can offer easier connections to the city's 311 services, and anonymous data collection of different aspects of city life, such as traffic patterns, could improve data-based decision-making at City Hall, much like the Array of Things sensor project is doing in Chicago.

"Making New York City smarter and more responsive is our shared vision with the city," he says. "Nothing like this has ever been done before, and we're looking forward to discovering what innovations come from what we learn about New York."

O'Donnell also sees the proposed network having ancillary effects on city life. Customers at restaurants and businesses everywhere will benefit from free access to Wi-Fi. While no cost figures are available at this time, O'Donnell says significant investments are being made, and the ad-supported system will generate millions for the city to use for other purposes.

As more bus stations roll out in Los Angeles this fall, and converted pay phones begin popping up in New York City, the initial impact may be small, limited just to select areas and commuters. But Nion sees this as the beginning of a much bigger change in the way we connect to cities.

"In a sense, everything here and now is small wins, but in reality, these small wins will probably lead to way more," he says.

Downtown LA Just Got a Super Fancy New Bus Shelter [Curbed LA]
Outdoors and Online: 20 of New York City's Free Wi-Fi Spots [Curbed New York]