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How a Smart Wi-Fi Hub Could Change Tech Access and City Advertising

New York's new LinkNYC program is beginning to replace defunct pay phones with ad-supported high-tech kiosks

New Yorkers have started to see them pop up around Manhattan and the Bronx, but if the creators of the LinkNYC high-tech kiosks have their way, city dwellers around the country and world will soon see these wi-fi hotspots and data hubs everywhere. Created by City of New York and CityBridge, a NYC–based consortium of leading experts in technology, media, connectivity and user experience, these high-tech replacements for pay phones have already appeared on hundreds of street corners in Manhattan and the Bronx. Eventually 7,500 of the kiosks, nine-and-a-half feet tall curbed monoliths which offer free access to maps and city services, voice calls, device charging, and internet browsing, will cover the five boroughs, providing $500 million in ad revenue to the city over the next 12 years (the ad-supported network is being installed at no cost the the city)

Will these new hubs live up to their promise of delivering tech equity by providing free high-speed internet access and helping bridge the digital divide, or are they just another invasive smart screen cluttering our landscape, a "personalized propaganda engine?" Curbed spoke with Dave Etherington, Chief of Strategy for Intersection, about the introduction of these high-tech kiosks and how to balance usefulness and ubiquity when designing a new advertising medium.

What have you learned about how these kiosks are operating on the streets?

"It’s exceeded our expectation around usage. We’re pretty early on, only about 5 percent of the Link kiosks have been installed. That’s 330 in Manhattan and the Bronx, then Queens this week, and construction has been started in both Brooklyn and Staten Island. With those 330, adoption has been great. We already have 250,000 registered users. Every week the number changes. I’ve been saying 15,000 new registers a week, and this week, I’m happy to say it was over 20,000 new users. So we're well on the way to 1 million unique users. Last week, we had 1,000,000 wi-fi sessions and 40,000 tablet sessions, around half being phone calls. It’s been stunning the amount of use we’re getting. And there are plenty of surprising things; people have been playing YouTube videos and having impromptu dance parties in the street."

You mentioned the plans to expand to all five boroughs. How do you see this network helping underserved communities and turning wi-fi into a public utility?

"Cities across the world are dealing with the issue of internet access. In New York, there’s something like 2.5 million people in the city that don’t have access to high-speed internet. We're part of changing the infrastructure of the city to democratize communications for everyone. We hope, and we’re already seeing it, that Link is becoming something that’s being used by people from every background."

People have been playing YouTube videos and having impromptu dance parties in the street.

What’s the next step, and how does this network create a backbone for more smart city technology?

"The next step is deploying more of the Link units, that’s our first concern. We’re still in beta, and learning. There are a lot of new test cases for the tablet itself that's built into the kiosk, and we’ve been toying around with lots of different ideas. One day people could perhaps vote on these things. We’re interested in pursuing these sorts of idea with the city, our big partner in this. I’m really excited about future technology and AI; we think about Link as an open platform. Perhaps one day we could hold a hackathon to determine future use cases."

What criteria are you using to make sure this is helping all New Yorkers?

"We’ll see it replace the entire payphone system. They’ll be some greenfield sites, and in places where there are banks of phones, we’ll replace them with just one or two Links. The idea is to have them where people are, so you know, there is heavily trafficked area where people live, work, and travel. In and of themselves, they’re reflective of New Yorkers. There will be greenfield sites that we will create to fill in the gap. But for the most part, we’ll be replacing the pay phone network."

What are the other use cases you’ve been considering with the tablets?

"I suppose one of the immediate potential use cases is allowing people to make free video calls, not just voice calls, which would be a cool and interesting one. I think as these use cases develop, we want to make sure Link is open to including new ways of approaching different problems and challenges."

There have been a lot of discussion about the security and privacy implications of using this system. Can you explain from the perspective of someone walking down the street and linking to the network, how their privacy will be respected?

"We have always taken privacy and security incredibly seriously. We set out to create the most robust, citizen-first privacy policy we could. To begin with, if you’re a new user, when you begin the enrollment process, you only need to provide a very small amount of data, just an email address. Consider what you need for home email service, a credit card and sometimes even a social security number. So it requires a much smaller amount of personal data. We also anonymize and aggregate data. Our privacy policy dictates we’ll never share any personally identifiable information, an email address or a name, with a third party. From a security perspective, we use end-to-end encryption, bank-like encryption. I think it’s the first time public wi-fi has had end-to-end encryption like this. We’re pretty focused on making sure people fall in love with Link and use it every day, and to do that, we need to put them first, we can’t compromise them in any way. That’s our raison d’etre."

This is free for the city, but not a free system. it’s supported by advertising. What kind of data will be utilized by this advertising? What will be collected and utilized, and how will it offer new advertising opportunities?

"We know the exact location of every Link, and can utilize the time of day to deliver more relevant information. We don’t just tell you about stadiums or teams, we tell you who’s playing where and when. We have the ability to understand demographics with a variety of different measurement tools. That allows you to understand different locations and think about audiences with much more granularity. Both of those tools are becoming more and more dynamic, they’re becoming more analogous to the type of dynamic digital measurement that exists online. You can think about the composition of an audience at a specific time, and trigger a change in advertising. You can use third-party data sets, and that gets really interesting. You can adjust to events like weather. The kiosk could say, there will be sideways rain at this location in several minutes; buy an umbrella or get an Uber. In the case of an advertising campaign with StreetEasy, we displayed nearby apartments and property. We have super fast wi-fi, so you can download the app to look at the apartment very quickly. In effect, we create this closed ecosystem; giving consumers a message and the bandwidth to take the next action."

What do you define as success with the LinkNYC program?

"When we came up with the idea for LinkNYC, we were inspired by Google Maps and YouTube. Really, none of us think about them as advertising platforms. They’re products that people use everyday and have become an integral part of everyday life. And they’re given away for free, they’re just supported by advertising. I think at the very first stages, when we were thinking about Link, we wanted to create the best possible product. For instance, once you’re on the network, you don’t have to re-authenticate, because if you had to, it would be a bad experience. Once we’re further down the road with roll-out, and it becomes a contiguous online experience for those walking and traveling throughout the city, and people just switch over to it without thinking, then they'll see how it changes their online behavior. They won’t need to wait to go to work to do heavy lifting such as uploading photos. We can show them how to save money on their data plan. For us, keeping a close eye on usage is a measure of success. And as I said earlier, it’s been a great start with the rollout thus far, and exactly where we want to be."

"As far as advertising is concerned, it’s about encouraging brands who haven’t advertised in physical spaces before to try out Link. That would be a real measure of success, being able to show them we can deliver the creative and strategic potential of the internet in public. Think of newsprint, when you see, say, a Labor Day sale in the paper. With the proliferation of displays on the Link network, we can offer huge impact on those types of campaigns that traditionally wouldn’t use this kind of advertisement."

"It’s really interesting since we have so many LinkNYC kiosks, and they have a place and role in people’s daily lives. When the sad news of Muhammad Ali and Prince broke earlier this year, we pretty much instantly posted creative that really mirrored back the emotion of the city and connected the infrastructure of the city to its heartbeat. The Olympics is coming up, and we’re interested in seeing how that works with Link. We’re also interested in expanding to global cities, and other cities in the United States."

We have a million screens in our lives, and now this is another screen offering a new means of communication.

"What’s new is the additional context. There used to be very one-dimensional context to signs; put it up for four weeks, no editorial, no value proposition, no updates, that’s it. No dynamism. With Link, we hope to not just solve the issue of technical inequity, but help bring about a smarter and more reactive city. And the network is going to be so fast, the phone will be the roadblock, not the network."

How do you create something in a public space that doesn’t add more visual pollution or white noise, something people like as opposed to a screens everywhere, Blade Runner type situation?

"Well, all that stuff I said about context is key. Design is also hugely important. We worked with Antenna design, urban architects who have won many awards, and we’re proud of the way Link looks. When you see a unit on the street, it looks like an enduring part of the city. And of course, over the course of the 12-year contract, we’ll update both the software and the hardware. Messaging and content are really important, and we’ve just started figuring that out. Being part of the zeitgeist can help. We did this interesting campaign with Shazam where we surfaced live Shazam data; here are the top 10 songs people are listening to right now. And so, you’ve got Sade on the West Side, and I was doing an interview on Turtle Bay, and Sonny Rollins was number two, in the neighborhood. That was pretty great."

These kiosks will also have sensors to measure data such as pollution levels. Will those be open source, and will the data be available to others seeking to build their own apps?

"Definitely. We’ve been working with the city and Argonne National Labs on how to put sensors in the kiosks that will measure information such as congestion, noise pollution, etc. We will have an incredible amount of new data, and we’re interested in seeing what people do with it."