Cells & the City: LinkNYC Connects New Yorkers with Fast, Free Mobile Service

A city-backed service allows New Yorkers to surf the mobile web on the streets of Manhattan for free and at higher speeds than in their homes. Hans Klis reports from the Big Apple…

The cellular reception on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 56th Street in New York has never been spotless. The endless stream of tourists and businessmen staring at their devices and the looming skyscrapers interfering with signals are to blame for that.

But it has gotten worse ever since Donald Trump got elected president. Since then, smart phone browsers have seemingly gotten a little slower and the audio from streaming services hiccup more often in this part of Manhattan.

Luckily there’s a LinkNYCconsole on the corner of Fifth and 56th. And if you’re not intimidated by the heavily-armed policemen stationed there, you can experience superfast WI-FI of around 400 Mbps. That’s about 15 times faster than at your average coffee place and almost ten times faster than most home networks.

All users are required to do is provide an email address and they can surf the mobile web for free. The console at Trump Tower is one of the 828 large devices that have been installed in the five boroughs of New York since the program’s launch in February 2016.  

LinkNYC is a city-backed initiative by CityBridge, a consortium of technology companies like Qualcomm and CIVICQ. It’s meant to provide New Yorkers and tourists with easy and free access to mobile services such as maps and directions, a device charging station, free phone calls throughout the US, access to government benefits and emergency services.

The large shiny black and blue consoles resemble the monoliths from 2001: A Space Odyssey andhave two 55-inch digital displays on each side with an Android console resembling a pay phone. There’s even a nod to the New York of old; the LinkNYC devices are physically replacing those now obsolete machines. 

Use of the superfast Wi-Fi network and services are free for users. LinkNYC is paid for by ads that run on the sides of the consoles. And a CityBridge spokesperson tells Open Mobile Media that the program is “meeting all revenue obligations.” With partners like Samsung, Delta, and Gap the service will generate more than a half a billion dollars in revenue this year.

LinkNYC uses the Passpoint system to provide continual Wi-Fi coverage throughout the city. Also known as Hotspot 2.0 it makes the consoles work together like a network of cell-phone towers, letting devices switch from one Wi-Fi hotspot to another. With only 828 LinkNYC this is yet to be achieved. Walking from Trump Tower towards the 53th Street logs you off because of inactive consoles or because some are still being installed.

According to LinkNYC, subscribers have used more than 1.4 petabytes of data since the launch. That’s the equivalent of streaming more than a million hours of video or sending ten billion emails. Subscribers have saved $15 million in data fees. The service touts 1.66 million subscribers. It’s unclear if this number also includes tourists. New York City has a population of some 8.5 million and every year 60 million national and international tourists visit the five boroughs.    

LinkNYC primarily focuses on those New Yorkers who don’t have regular access to broadband internet. “Internet isn’t a luxury-- it’s critical to apply for jobs, stay connected with friends and family, for kids to do their homework, and much more,” a LinkNYC spokesperson explains. “For those that have their own data plans, not only can the network help offset usage and costs, LinkNYC also provides the fastest Wi-Fi available in NYC free of charge, about 100 times faster than your phone's LTE and other public Wi-Fi networks.”

…And Access for All

After launching LinkNYC the city discovered some unintended consequences with consoles that at that time featured a browser—they were being used by some of the homeless population and teenagers to watch porn on the city’s dime. Most notably on crowded sidewalks near tourist attractions like Times Square.

After businesses, police and politicians complained,LinkNYC shuttered its browsing service and instead has chosen an app-like approach to battling internet inequality and social-economic inequality.

According to a recent reportof the Federal Communications Commission in 2016, 12.6 million Americans did not have access to broadband internet access. New York City Comptroller’s office estimatesthat about one in five households lack an internet connection, most of them are citizens that can be grouped in the poorest demographics (unemployed, less than high school education, minority) in boroughs like Queens and the Bronx.

In April, the consortium added Aunt Bertha, a Yelp-like service, to its platform. It connects users to a vast database of social safety-net services using their zip code: food pantries, child- and healthcare, financial aid programs, and emergency housing.

Anti-poverty advocates have welcomed this addition to the LinkNYC devices.  “Access to Aunt Bertha through LinkNYC will allow low-income New Yorkers to connect to the best organizations in New York City to obtain services that address their needs,” says Steve Lee, managing director at anti-poverty agency Robin Hood. He says programs such as LinkNYC are key to battling inequality in the city, because the devices offer help to solve the interrelated problems of poverty.

Even with scrapping the browser function of the LinkNYC-network, adding services like Aunt Bertha increases the value of the project according to Gartner analyst Ian Keene. He says the services encourage “more frequent use of hot spot services” and enhance “the value of the service capability.”

The analyst adds that LinkNYC should actively pursue more partnerships that extend beyond the standard Commercial or Independent Service Providers (CSP, ISP). Keene says not sharing personal data of users to third parties is noble and makes the network more trustworthy for its target audience, but it diminishes the earning potential of the LinkNYC infrastructure.

To the Five Boroughs and Beyond

The growing pains of the first year of LinkNYC in the five boroughs should serve as an example for other municipalities adopting city-provided Wi-Fi and internet services. In January Chicago announced a pilot with one of the LinkNYC-members, CIVIQ, to bring high-speed public Wi-Fi to downtown.

There is a caveat to free access. Security experts warn users to be cautious even though LinkNYC doesn’t store user data, aside from an email account to log in, and the network is protected by WPA-2 encryption.

Like using a public toilet, you might want to steer away from messy situations. Private Communications CEO Kent Lawson warns this type of fast and high usage Wi-Fi will attract people who want to get into the network and steal user data: “Just philosophically, people need to be responsible for their own security. While I’m not critical of the security of LinkNYC there are ways of getting around it. Security is not absolute.”

As provider of VPN for-the-masses service Private Wi-Fi, that counts AOL among its partners, he encourages users of public WIFI spots to download VPN-software to encrypt the data that bounces between devices.

LinkNYC is turning out to be a colorful addition to the infrastructure of New York City. After a year in service it remains to be seen if it can realize its goals of battling internet, social and economic inequality. But the project looks promising. Just don’t pay your bank or credit card bills through LinkNYC's Wi-Fi network just yet.