Upper East Side Wi-Fi Kiosks Up and Running

After making a call to his office, Councilmember Ben Kallos charges up his cellphone. | JACKSON CHEN
After making a call to his office, Councilmember Ben Kallos charges up his cellphone at 86th Street and Third Avenue. | JACKSON CHEN

BY JACKSON CHEN | Free public access to high speed Wi-Fi is now available throughout the Upper East Side after LinkNYC turned on more than 30 locations along Third Avenue.

The modern kiosks replaced the archaic phone booths that many New Yorkers have in recent years treated as makeshift trashcans. Instead, the phones’ underground infrastructure now powers the “links” that offer gigabit-speed Wi-Fi, a built-in tablet for web surfing, an emergency 911 button, and two USB charging ports.

“One in four New Yorkers still do not have access to broadband Internet in their home or office,” said Jennifer Hensley, the general manager for LinkNYC. “We’re excited about the connectivity that this will provide, giving everyone in New York access to the information they need.”

As of April 6, LinkNYC has installed 147 kiosks at locations throughout Manhattan, with 92 of them active. The lion’s share of the links are found on the East Side –– with Third Avenue kiosks between 14th and 57th Streets already live. The West Side, where kiosks have been installed on Eighth Avenue, between 14th Street and Columbus Circle, has only three active links. According to Hensley, the company activates the kiosks as fiber optics and power connections are completed.

She added that the kiosks being installed on Third Avenue will be expanded all the way uptown into the Bronx, where LinkNYC hopes to turn on connections by the summer. Over that time frame, the company also plans to install a total of 510 links that will go live in Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island. During the next dozen years, the city hopes LinkNYC can establish as many as 10,000 kiosk connections.

“Something had to be done about the city’s payphone booths that were often missing the phones,” said City Councilmember Ben Kallos, an East Side Democrat who has been advocating for payphone reform since 2013. “Fast forward to today in 2016. We now have access to free Wi-Fi… at no cost to taxpayers.”

Kallos added that LinkNYC’s free services would provide the city with an annual $20 million in advertising revenue, through the franchising agreement established with CityBridge, which manages the program.

However, connecting thousands of New Yorkers for free on a daily basis hasn’t become a reality without some concerns being voiced. The New York Civil Liberties Union said that CityBridge would retain a database of information regarding what users do on their devices and has only committed to make “reasonable efforts” to clear out that data after 12 months of user inactivity.

“Free public Wi-Fi can be an invaluable resource for this city,” said NYCLU’s executive director Donna Lieberman in a March statement. “But New Yorkers need to know there are too many strings attached.”

LinkNYC contested the NYCLU claims and said user information would never be retained or used by any third parties.

“We have a very robust, well-negotiated privacy policy that we worked very closely with the City of New York on,” Hensley said. “We take privacy very seriously for all of our users and everybody accessing the LinkNYC network.”

With LinkNYC offering many essential digital age services for free, concerns about privacy are bound to follow. But the modern kiosks undeniably offer essential services that the seedy phone booths of New York never could.

“Upper East Siders won’t have to worry about dead batteries or going over your monthly data as they use LinkNYC for free,” Kallos said.