New York City’s remaining pay phones are, much to the chagrin of public urinators, are on their way out. LinkNYC, a New York-based communications company, is steadily replacing those obsolete boxes with public wifi installations. It’s a sidewalk land grab to be sure, but its also the future of the city’s public data infrastructure.
Over the next several years, LinkNYC plans to install 7,500 of its kiosks across New York City’s five boroughs. The kiosks offer free public wifi, and promise speeds 100 times faster than other public wifi networks and mobile LTE connections. They have two USB ports for charging devices, a tablet interface for browsing the web and making free phone calls, and an emergency 911 button. They’ve been called a magnets for the homeless, drug deal hubs, and, by city officials, a massive success. According to company stats, the LinkNYC network has been used more than five million times since its debut, and 15,000 people use it for the first time every week.
Here’s what’s remarkable: During those millions of visits, users aren’t taking up that much bandwidth. As of June 20, LinkNYC users have used 53.77 terabytes of data in 6,691,186 sessions. On average, that means that each session uses about eight megabytes of data. To put that in context, browsing Facebook on a mobile device usually takes up about two megabytes of data per minute, so each LinkNYC session only equates to about 4-5 minutes on Facebook. The average wireless customer uses 1.8 gigabytes, (roughly 1,800 megabytes) of data per month, so it would take a lot of trips to a LinkNYC kiosk to equal that amount of browsing. This is what the birth of a utility — or a new type of public space — looks like.
Nothing happens all at once.
LinkNYC is operating nowhere near capacity, but there’s reason to believe that New Yorkers will come around and begin using it as a resource to speed their browsing while avoiding hitting their carriers’ data limits.
Still, as the LinkNYC terminals expand to cover more of the city, it’s possible that they could expand wifi coverage to a lot of New Yorkers. Office buildings and work sites have wifi networks, so for most people, the only time they rely on data networks is while they’re in public above ground. This is where LinkNYC comes in and why it represents such a critical last link in a chain.
But it isn’t that easy.
Free, fast public wifi might not be as simple as it sounds. The Link terminals are funded by advertising that’s displayed on large LCD screens on their sides, but the company has some powerful backers: LinkNYC is the result of a group of companies called CityBridge, which include Qualcomm, CIVIQ Smartscapes, and Intersection. Intersection is itself a merger between Control Group, a technology and design consultant, and the advertising company Titan (the logo of which you’d see on pay phones), which is in turn owned by a company called Sidewalk Labs. Sidewalk Labs is owned by Alphabet, the umbrella corporation that, for all intents and purposes, ties together everything that we refer to as “Google.”
Of course, the web of tech startups leading back to one of Silicon Valley’s kingpins is nothing new: That recent Voice story conveys concerns about the concept of happily linking devices and sharing data with LinkNYC’s omnipresent installation are ultimately owned by one of the world’s most powerful and ubiquitous companies.
The inherent privacy concerns are so strong that some digital rights advocates refer to Link terminals as “spy stations,” paranoid about their bank of cameras on top and monitoring capabilities. At a panel on Sunday at New York’s HOPE Convention, hackers and privacy advocates discussed the intricacies of LinkNYC’s privacy policies.
“Free wifi comes with a cost, and that cost is in terms of security most of the time,” Benjamin Dean, a fellow at Columbia University and the founder of Iconoclast Tech said during the panel. “As we all know that when you’re not paying, you’re not the customer, you’re the product.”
LinkNYC flatly denies that they will sell anybody’s personal information. A spokesperson for the company tells Inverse that it would keep its hands off data from personal devices hooked up to the wifi service:
“LinkNYC does not collect or store any data on users’ personal web browsing on their own devices,” the spokesperson tells Inverse. “CityBridge will never sell any user’s personal information or share with third parties for their own use. This includes the city, law enforcement, investors, vendors, partners, and advertisers. Alphabet, Sidewalk Labs, and Google are all third parties to CityBridge.”
In other words, LinkNYC and CityBridge, despite their financial and ownership ties to Alphabet and its subsidiaries, are considered separate companies, and assert that they won’t “sell user’s personal information.”
Skepticism of a “too good to be true” promise of free, blazing-fast public wifi is healthy, but for the average user, hopping on to a LinkNYC terminal probably won’t tie your data to Google’s vast network any more than it already is. Still, being able to accept a reasonable amount of compromised privacy is a privilege enjoyed most by communities who have little to fear from government or law enforcement. Like the subway, cheap hole-in-the-wall restraints, hot dog carts, and “authentic” Oakley sunglasses vendors in Central Park, LinkNYC users do so at their own risk.