NYC's Free Public Wifi Moves at Warp Speed

If you find yourself in New York without wifi, find one of these kiosks.

Tuesday was frigid in Manhattan, and members of the LinkNYC street team were dutifully stationed at each of four sleek new wifi kiosks, ready to assist passersby. It eventually got cold enough that even the street team left, presumably headed indoors.

LinkNYC is a new endeavor and unlike anything else in the world: Beyond the four kiosks that went online today, there are plans to add more across the city in the coming months.

It may not even be fair to call these kiosks: They’re streamlined and futuristic-looking. They provide internet speeds that exceed the capability of even the newest consumer-grade laptops — a current cap of one gigabyte per second, far faster than a 50 megabyte per second speed you’ll find in many residences.

Even though the range is 450 feet per kiosk, you still might have to be outside to be close enough use them, which in January, isn’t so comfortable. Taking refuge from the cold in — where else — a Starbucks close to one of the kiosks, I found Benjamin. He looked like he’d been at Starbucks for a while, so I spoke with him for a moment about the new links. He showed me the only reported issue with the Links thus far: They seem incapable, or unwilling, to support a League of Legends connection. (Counter Strike runs fine, though.) Benjamin’s been at that Starbucks in that chair for a couple weeks, so he’s seen it all when it came to the kiosk: Recently, someone was trying to push the Link over. He said “it did budge.” Who knows how it’ll hold up against the inevitable distracted driver’s car.

On the other side of the Starbucks sat Jen Hensley, the general manager of LinkNYC.

So it’s the first day, that’s exciting!

We’re super pumped to see all the New Yorkers and visitors and folks in the area who are accessing their first free gigabit public wifi.

What can you tell me about capabilities and installation?

It’s been an 18-month process to get to this point, and it’s ongoing as we fully roll out the system. Today we’re offering free wifi to the public as well as serving ads on the 55-inch digital displays on both sides of every link. There are four units, that are activated as of today, up 3rd Avenue between 15th Street and 18th Street. We’re going to be activating more as they get energized and tested, and we’re continuing deployment, putting additional units on the street every week. You’re going to start seeing them all over the city over the next several months.

That is freaking fast.

Can you carry the connection between each Link as you walk?

That’s the idea, yeah. We’re seeing ranges of up to 450 feet in some cases. Our contractual minimum with the city is 150 feet, with the idea being that it would push you to the next Link. The accessing of the network that you’re on is dependent on the way that your mobile device operates. So it’s not necessarily going to push you — if you’re still getting a really strong signal from a Link, you may not get pushed to the next one. However, I think you’re still going to get a more optimal internet experience than you would elsewhere.

Is it going to work for people who live in the apartments nearby?

We’re excited to see whether they can use it and how. It’s designed to be an on-street network, but with the ranges that we’re seeing, we wouldn’t be surprised if people were able to access it in their apartments.

That’s a perk.

That’s a perk — yeah, exactly. A selling point.

Any hiccups so far?

Knock on wood, everything’s looking good. We have a lot of technical folks monitoring and testing the network, making sure we’re up and running. We have state-of the art equipment. So, we think we’ve done everything possible to make it a smooth and seamless roll-out. And we’ll continue monitoring it to make sure.

This system is the first of its kind in the world, right?

That’s right.

What was that deal like between you and the city?

Link is actually a product of a consortium called CityBridge. CityBridge has three member companies. Intersection, the managing member, is an urban advertising and technology firm based here in New York. CIVIQ Smartscapes is a Massachusetts-based manufacturing firm that creates hardened tablets and technology, industrial grade systems. They’re the manufacturer of the unit. And QualComm, a chip manufacturer out of San Diego, CA, is also a partner in CityBridge.

Industrial grade? Could someone take a sledgehammer to this?

You know, we think they’re really pretty and functional, and we hope people don’t take sledgehammers to them, but we’ve also done a lot of testing and generally think that these are a really ruggedized material. These are meant to be on the streets of New York. We think they’re going to withstand a lot. We’re also required to maintain them on an ongoing basis and visit them several times a week. We have maintenance crews that are going to be doing that and making sure that they’re fully functional.

These are replacing public payphones. Each Link is equipped with a speakerphone, right?

There is a noise-cancelling directional speakerphone on the tablet functionality. That’s actually not been released yet. It’s just the wifi and the ad-serving. The tablet’s going to come, probably, in early February. There is a noise-cancelling speaker to help for anybody who wants to make a phone call using the tablet. There’s also an audio headphone jack that you can use if you want a more private experience. We wanted to accommodate people who both have headphones and don’t.

Can you tell me about the ads?

Intersection is a municipal advertising company. We owned the payphones previously and did sales for those. We also have dozens of other contracts with municipalities around the country doing ad sales. So, we have a whole salesforce that’s extremely talented and well-versed. The early advertisers you’ll see are Coors, Shazam, Poland Springs, Citi, Pager, and we’re in discussions with a lot of other folks to start putting their ads up as well. It’s digital ad signage served through an internet-based, location-based program. You can program each side of each Link in each location, so it’s hyper-localized.

You’re supporting the entire endeavor with these ads, right?

That’s right.

Are you profiting as well?

Not right now. It’s been a really expensive roll-out. We’ve invested a lot of money in the infrastructure and the development.

Can you get specific?

Over $200 million of capital investment. But, ultimately, we think that the advertising potential is there, and we’re excited to work with new companies to bring really creative, dynamic ads to the city of New York, in a really — like I said — hyper-localized, contextual way that we think drives value. Under our franchise agreement, we expect to pay the city over $500 million over the course of our franchise. And that money can be repurposed for other city services and activities.

Localized ads meaning you could have an ad that says “up ahead to the left, there’s a great coffee shop”?

Absolutely, yeah. Or, you know, it’s an opportunity for a small business, like the dry cleaners next door, to be able to buy something very specific, whereas before they couldn’t access the traditional out-of-home advertising buy. We’re offering local ad sales at rates that are reasonable for small businesses. We think there’s a lot of functionality.

Can you talk to me about speeds at all?

Sure. It’s a 1 gigabyte fiber connection to each Link, which we think provides the sort of redundancy necessary to serve anybody who would want to be on the structure at any given time. We’re at the point where your device — whether it’s a laptop or a phone — is the bottleneck to your speed. So, on super-new, state-of-the-art iPhones or Android devices, we’re seeing speeds in the 150 to 200 Mbps range. Obviously faster than anything folks have ever experienced before; definitely faster than your home network. But not a whole gig, because your cell phone is not capable of operating at that level. Similarly, on a brand-new Macbook Pro, we were seeing something on the order of 720 to 750 Mbps, and, again, that’s with three antennas and a state-of-the-art device — still not able to fully process one gig. We built this so that the capacity is really there to serve all the users. It’ll be interesting to see over the life of the franchise how devices evolve, and speeds evolve, and what people can do with it.

Is it already at its upper limit? Is it maxed out at 1 gigabyte?

We have one gig running to these right now, but we do have contractual obligations to upgrade the system over time. It’s capable, I believe, of 10 gigs. Depending on what switches, and what network hardware you have in there. So, if it’s determined that we don’t have enough bandwidth, it’s definitely — you know, we built this network to provide for the city of New York and for everybody who wants to use it.

Great. So, I quickly connected before I came in —

Quickly connected! That’s right.

— and I did test a YouTube video, and it loaded immediately. But I did have to install some certificate.

An encryption key, yeah. So, your device is Hotspot 2.0-compatible, which is the most secure and scalable technology available. We’re committed to providing a secure public wifi environment. And that’s what you were able to access. If your device hadn’t been Hotspot 2.0-compatible, you would not have gotten that prompt. However, you would’ve still been able to login to the open network — which is something that we still have relevant and important security protocols on, and are monitoring for safety.

Can you speak a little more about that? With internet privacy, anonymity, surveillance being big issues these days?

All of the Link network services are governed by a very robust privacy policy that we have with the city of New York. We protect all personally-identifiable information, we don’t share it with third parties for their use, we definitely don’t sell it — ever. You had to put an email address in when you logged in, and we use that to monitor the system and make sure it’s functioning, and also to communicate service upgrades and changes to our users over time. But, we do take security very seriously, and we think we have the right tools and steps in place to make sure that users can access our network and do what they want to do on the internet.

I could see a particularly skeptical person not wanting to do certain things on the internet — if you know what I’m getting at — through a public, city-run connection grid.

I think it’s important to know that it’s not city-run: It’s run by CityBridge, and our subcontractors. Like I said, we’ve got a great team working on this that’s very experienced in managing public networks of all different times. So, we believe it’s a safe and secure environment. That said, internet safety is an important issue, and people need to operate in the space they’re comfortable.

You will notice that the internet experience on your phone connected to a Link is an ad-free experience. It’s really designed to be user-first and a benefit to the public. We think the integrity of our system is there, we encourage people to use it, and we think that people will find it to be a safe and reliable form of internet access.

Anything to tack on?

Just that, as this rolls out we really want everyone to check it out. If someone has any questions, issues, or concerns, you can access our website at You can also use that to figure out where the active Links are, and, you know, what we’re up to.

It’ll be interesting to see if people stop to login today, in this cold. I saw an older man walking that illustrated somewhat of a juxtaposition.

It is pretty interesting to see who’s into it. If you have a data plan, and you go over, or you want better access, this is a great alternative to offload some of that bandwidth. Whether you’re an older person on a fixed income, or a young student — really, who uses the internet? Basically everybody.

Any plans to come to Brooklyn?

We’ll be in Brooklyn, in all five boroughs. We’re going to head up Third Avenue, headed into the Bronx, then out to Jamaica area and Queens, and then coming back toward the city along Queens Boulevard. And then, in Brooklyn, Downtown Brooklyn and then kind of out Flatbush Avenue, you’ll see us in June-ish timeframe. Then, the northern part of Staten Island by St. George terminal, and on Highland Boulevard. So, yes, you’ll see all of that roll out between now and July, and then we’ll keep going from there.

Well, my ISP isn’t cutting it for me, so maybe you can plant one outside my apartment.

[Laughs.] That’s right! Suggest a Link — we got you.

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