Free, high-speed Wi-Fi hotspots launch in NYC

NYC’s IT chief slams stalled public Wi-Fi project

New York City’s relationship with CityBridge, the consortium replacing pay phones with Wi-Fi kiosks on city sidewalks, seems to be cooling. For Jessica Tisch, New York City’s new commissioner of the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunication, it has turned downright frosty.

At a March 3 meeting of the New York City Council’s Committees on Land Use and Technology, Tisch said CityBridge has fallen behind not just in installation of the Link kiosks but also on the revenue it promised to the city, even as the city relaxed the payment schedule. Now, Tisch said, she will take action to ensure the city is paid what it is owed.

“The breach [of contract] I am describing goes beyond money owed to the city of New York. CityBridge has also failed to install and activate new Link structures and remove old payphones.… Installation of new Links stopped in fall of 2018,” Tisch said in her testimony. “Troublingly, a large majority of the 537 Links owed to the city are in underserved areas – in boroughs other than Manhattan. New Yorkers who’d benefit most from this service are not getting it.”

The project, launched in January 2016 was designed to replace the city’s pay phones with nine-foot tall kiosks that offer free domestic phone calls and access to a gigabit Wi-Fi network for users within 150 feet. The kiosks would be powered by a purpose-built fiber optic network that would deliver speeds up to 100 times faster than average public Wi-Fi, LinkNYC said at the time of the launch. The kiosks also feature charging ports, interactive maps, direct access to 911 and 311 and advertising displays, which were expected to finance the project.

At its launch, the project was hailed as “reimagining 20th century payphones as 21st century connection points” and “making broadband access more equitable and accessible to every New Yorker” by the mayor’s office. The plan called for installing 4,500 kiosks -- and eventually 7,500 by 2020 -- across the five boroughs that were expected to net revenues of at least $17.5 million in advertising and franchising fees. So far, only 1,769 have been installed, 1,093 of which have been in Manhattan.

What seemed like a good way to provide free municipal Wi-Fi to residents and a revenue stream for the city, the project ran into problems right out of the gate when the kiosks were being used inappropriately, sometimes displaying pornography. Concerns about security  and privacy have also dogged the project. 

CityBridge paid the city only $2.6 million of the $32.3 million owed in FY19 under the terms of its franchise agreement, and so far in FY20 it has not paid any of the $43.7 million under the terms of its amended agreement.  This is despite collecting revenues of $105 million from advertising, Tisch said in her testimony. 

The city fined CityBridge $142,000 for kiosks’ phones and phone components that weren’t working or maintained in the last two fiscal years, and the organization owes the city $1 million in liquidated damages for failing to deploy kiosks, according to a report in The City.

A CityBridge spokesperson called Tisch’s remarks to the city council “a fictional narrative that ignores the city’s responsibility for the current state of affairs,” according to a report in the NY Post. “While the public’s use of LinkNYC’s free services has far exceeded expectations, installing Links has proven more difficult and costly than expected -- largely due to the city’s own rules and bureaucracy,” the spokesperson said.

A source familiar with the CityBridge consortium told Politico that the organization has invested $250 million to build out the kiosk network and provided more than $225 million in free wireless data to New Yorkers.

In 2016, LinkNYC said restrictions imposed by Verizon, which controls access to the underground conduit of fiber-optic cables the kiosks connect to, impeded kiosk installations in parts of New York, The City reported.

“I believe the city has bent over backwards to amend the franchise agreement,” Tisch said. “I have no patience for it.”

About the Author

Susan Miller is executive editor at GCN.

Over a career spent in tech media, Miller has worked in editorial, print production and online, starting on the copy desk at IDG’s ComputerWorld, moving to print production for Federal Computer Week and later helping launch websites and email newsletter delivery for FCW. After a turn at Virginia’s Center for Innovative Technology, where she worked to promote technology-based economic development, she rejoined what was to become 1105 Media in 2004, eventually managing content and production for all the company's government-focused websites. Miller shifted back to editorial in 2012, when she began working with GCN.

Miller has a BA and MA from West Chester University and did Ph.D. work in English at the University of Delaware.

Connect with Susan at [email protected] or @sjaymiller.


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