As LinkNYC rolls out through the city, guides take to the streets to demonstrate how to use the free network.
MANHATTAN, NEW YORK — On a scorching morning, Stefan Carpio, a 26-year-old Bronx native, stands on the northwest corner of 150th and Broadway in Washington Heights, wearing a black T-shirt bearing this invitation: “Ask me about Link.”
OK, what’s Link?
Carpio gestures to a sleek sidewalk kiosk equipped with a small touchscreen. “It’s got everything you would expect from your mobile phone or tablet right here—maps, the internet, calling capability,” Carpio says. “And of course, there’s the free high-speed Wi-Fi.”
The kiosk is one node in the network that makes up LinkNYC, New York City’s initiative to bring free internet to the city streets. New York is the first city to attempt this model of public web access, and since the program launched in January, residents are still acclimating to the presence of the monolith-like Link outposts. “There’s a lot of confusion,” Carpio says. “I’ve seen people just stop and stare at the machines.”
As a member of the LinkNYC Street Team, which has been showing passersby the ropes of the network since the first machines were installed, Carpio brings a human face to New York’s far-flung tech overhaul. A stack of instructional flyers under his arm, he mans the sidewalk in front of the kiosk, called out to the scattered morning crowds and offering them a quick tutorial on how to use the console. Carpio demonstrates how to browse the internet, charge a mobile phone, place a free call, or navigate through the city with the help of Google Maps. The interface is Android-esque; the wireless network extends out from the booth in a 150-foot radius, and passersby can log into the free network on their phones.
To date, around 350 Link kiosks have emerged from the graves of old pay phones; more than 350,000 people have registered to the network. The deployment cost over $200 million, but the network will come at no additional cost to the city or taxpayers; it’s funded by ads that rotate across the screens on the sides of the kiosk. Over the course of an eight-year rollout, the number of kiosks will grow to anywhere from 7,500 to 10,000 throughout the five boroughs, pulling the number of network registrations up exponentially and generating over $500 million in advertising revenue, according to Jen Hensley, the general manager for LinkNYC.
For many, the presence of a Link kiosk is a mild convenience: one less trip into a Starbucks to mooch off the free Wi-Fi, or a chance to place a call from something larger than a deck of cards. There’s a headphone jack, so you can dial the number on screen and place the call directly through the kiosk.
"Forgot my phone this morning so I'm calling my mom for her birthday. She thinks it's cool." - Chris, Hells Kitchen pic.twitter.com/5vC0Z1lwEw— LinkNYC (@LinkNYC) August 3, 2016
But for a substantial number of New Yorkers, public-facing technology is not just a plaything, but a bridge. Carpio joined the LinkNYC street team after completing a course in software testing at Per Scholas, a Bronx-based national nonprofit that connects unemployed or low-income people with free tech training skills. Prior to the course, Carpio says, he struggled to find a job; as one of the dozen or so Per Scholas graduates that now make up the LinkNYC street team, Carpio now works two five-hour shifts per week at the most recently installed kiosks, patiently walking people through the new additions to the neighborhood.
Per Scholas managing director Kelly Richardson says the organization enrolls students of color at a rate of 90 percent. One-third are women; all come from low-income families. The student body in the Bronx center, Richardson says, “really looks like New York.”
But it’s the part of New York that’s been left out of the increasingly internet-connected fabric of the city. According to a 2015 report from the Office of the New York City Comptroller, 26 percent of households in the city lack broadband internet access at home. That access gap is greatest in black and Hispanic homes, and demarcated along socioeconomic lines. And it’s getting wider: The report notes that “the digital divide appears to be growing on a year-over-year basis, with poor neighborhoods of the South Bronx and Central and Eastern Brooklyn witnessing a decrease in the percentage of households with broadband.”
The idea behind LinkNYC is to bridge these access gaps. Street team members like Carpio are working to ensure people are aware of the kiosks—and how to use them safely.
From the time of its initial announcement, LinkNYC has been met with skepticism about the omnipotence of its public-private ownership. The program is a joint venture between the City of New York and an amalgamation of tech companies called CityBridge, which, if one peels back the Russian-nesting-doll layers of ownership far enough, traces back to Google.
The fact that the Silicon Valley behemoth would be on the receiving end the location-tracking and web-browsing data from the Link network has been cause for concern—particularly because, as The Atlantic previously reported, “people who can’t afford broadband access would be most likely to take advantage of a fast, free option for internet access like LinkNYC. And…low-income communities are already among the most surveilled in the country.”
In March, the New York Civil Liberties Union addressed a letter to the office of Mayor Bill de Blasio, calling for heightened security across the network. In response, Link asserted the data collected will not be sold or distributed; any data shared with advertisers and the city would be made anonymous.
Currently, LinkNYC offers two connectivity options on mobile phones: the regular open network, and an encrypted, private network. The latter is more secure, but for the time being, available only on the newest Apple devices—a disparity that drives another wedge between the socioeconomic sectors that Link aims to bridge.
However, Carpio says he mostly sees people use the kiosks to make calls or look up directions, though he once helped someone search for a job. According to Link, the average network login session lasts around three minutes, not long enough to leave a substantial data trail. And street team members like Carpio are on hand to explain safe browsing practices (such as sticking to URLs that begin with “https”) to boost privacy.
“This a completely new use of the technology—it doesn’t exist anywhere else,” says LinkNYC GM Hensley. “We knew that people would be curious about it, and that it might not be the most intuitive thing.” But as communication channels increasingly shift online, it’ll only be more imperative that it’s equally accessible to all New Yorkers. Someday, these Wi-Fi kiosks could be as familiar a part of the city’s streetscape as phone booths were to New Yorkers of the 1970s.