New Wi-Fi ‘Payphones’ May Include Controversial Location-Tracking Beacons


On November 17, New York City announced an ambitious new plan to replace payphones across the five boroughs with nine-and-half-foot pylons beaming free Wi-Fi to any device within a 150-foot radius, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The new network, Mayor de Blasio declared, would be “the fastest and largest municipal Wi-Fi network in the world.”

Besides a free, unfiltered Internet connection and speeds of up to one gigabit per second, the new kiosks would offer free domestic phone calls, a touchscreen for city services, directions, and charging docks.

Best of all: It won’t cost you, New York City taxpayer, a red cent! The entire operation will be funded through advertising revenue, and the group in charge of the roll-out, CityBridge, projects it will actually make $500 million in revenue for the city over the next 12 years.

CityBridge comprises four companies: the design firm Control Group; the telecommunications giant Qualcomm; Comark, which will manufacture the kiosks, called “Links”; and Titan, the city’s largest and oldest payphone franchisee.

If the name Titan sounds familiar, it’s because the company controls the outdoor advertising on several thousand phone booths across the city. It may also ring a bell because in October, Titan was embroiled in a bit of controversy when news emerged that it had installed tiny radio transmitters called beacons in 500 payphones around New York City.

Beacons can be used to push advertising to a person’s phone, but they are also able to track a person’s movements and collect profiling data like age, gender, income, ethnicity, education, interests, and the locations where that person spends the most time.

In New York the devices were installed by Titan with permission from the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications but, BuzzFeed found, “without any public notice, consultation, or approval.”

Shortly after the news broke in early October, the city forced Titan to remove the devices.

Titan, which uses beacons in other cities, is now set to oversee operations and manage the advertising for the new Link program, and, according to a spokeswoman for the project, isn’t ruling out bringing beacons back. “Right now beacons are not included; however, Links have been designed to be flexible and able to incorporate new technologies over time,” Sarah Sanzari told the Voice via email.

Sanzari also confirmed the group is definitely planning to incorporate location-sensing technology of some kind in the kiosks. “CityBridge believes that some location-based technology should be included in LinkNYC to allow New Yorkers to take advantage of all of the city services and other benefits that Links have been designed to provide.”

And it seems the group has thought quite a bit about how it might use beacons in the future. “There are a ton of great community-use cases for beacons, from services for people with disabilities to getting much more accurate GPS signal in the canyons of NYC. Of course, beacons are an opt-in technology, and you would have to choose to use them,” Sanzari added.

At least this time around, she promises, New Yorkers will be notified in advance of any installation. “If we do incorporate beacon technology, we will work closely with the city to let the public know when and how they will be used.”