New Yorkers Test the Pay Phones of the Future

It’s the day after Mayor Bill de Blasio publicly launched LinkNYC, a project that’s replacing the city’s pay phones with Wi-Fi kiosks, but not many people are paying attention to the sleek, rectangular towers that offer free Wi-Fi, phone charging, Internet access and domestic calls from the sidewalk.

Those who work and live on Third Avenue, where the project is being piloted, have gotten used to seeing the nine-and-a-half-foot-tall Links, as they’re called. Forty of them have cropped up on the avenue’s sidewalks from 14th Street up to midtown with a handful more on the Upper East Side, in recent weeks. Some passersby, of course, have no idea what the structures are.

At first glance, the Links appear, perhaps, to be no more than an advertising board: flat-screens play advertisements on two of the rectangular kiosk’s sides. But on the narrow face of the Link, the real action happens: there, a built-in tablet can be used to access the Internet, make calls, or use a map app. And each link is a Wi-Fi hot spot, with about a 150-foot range.

“LinkNYC is the Wi-Fi network New Yorkers deserve: the largest, fastest municipal Wi-Fi network in the world – and you won’t need to insert a quarter in the slot, because it’s completely free,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio at the public launch on Thursday, where he made inaugural taps on the Link tablet. “LinkNYC brings us a couple steps closer to our goal of leveling the playing field and providing every New Yorker with access to the most important tool of the 21st century.”

While the 15 active Links were all broadcasting Wi-Fi on Friday afternoon, they weren’t all functioning at full capacity. Only about half had working tablets for calls or browsing. On several of the others, screens were frozen and some were covered with a “Testing in Process” message; one active Link was completely black, including its flat screens for advertisements, but it still appeared to be functioning as a hot spot. That’s not contrary to the plan, though. CityBridge, the group responsible for the project, has said that the Links’ functions will become active in stages.


Repairs being made on a Link. (Simone McCarthy)

Yet even in their beta debut, these newcomers are already upstaging the dumpy, old-fashioned telephone booths they are set to replace. Sofia Stevens and Javier Lugo, for example, said they were excited about the free calls. They chatted with a friend using the tablet’s calling app at one of the fully functioning Links just north-east of Union Square.

“I needed to make a call, but I had no change and no minutes on my phone,” said Stevens. “It’s my first time using it, but it’s great, you can just call whenever you want.”

Links offer free domestic calls through the carrier, Vonage. Callers tap the phone icon on the tablet and dial directly onto its screen, then they can talk and listen through a speaker, unless they plug in their own headphones. It’s a long way from the days of quarters and calling cards, and the replacement is not purely symbolic: Links are being installed in the exact spots where older, traditional pay phones have been ripped out.

Yet even with the growing presence of the Links (40 kiosks have been installed so far, although only 15 are currently active), pay phones on Third Avenue are far from extinct. On the contrary, phone booths dot the sidewalks on nearly every block from Union Square up to mid-town. They are the once-upon-a-time-modern variety: open booths with a row of two or three phones attached to a metal wall with a ceiling. Pull a receiver off the hook and you’ll hear the antiquated sound of a dial tone. But functional or not, these days, the booths seem to be more of a receptacle for empty coffee cups or brown-bagged booze bottles than anything else.

“It was a bum haven,” says Anthony Cracchiolo, of the pay phones that were recently replaced by a Link right outside his shop, Dough Boys Pizza. “They were just left there for advertising because nobody ever used them.”
Not so with the new fixtures. He’s already been seeing people charging their phones at the Link that’s outside his 31st Street shop.

Pay Phone

These pay phones are ubiquitous on Third Avenue. (Simone McCarthy)

Pilar Sanchez works at a dry cleaners down on 17th Street, which also had a Link installed out-front, about a month ago. She said she’s already seen more people charging their phones at the Link than she’d ever seen using the pay phones that were there. To charge a cellphone, users must have their own charge cords, which they simply plug into one of the two USB ports, which sit below the tablet screen.

“Everybody has a cell phone,” Sanchez said, adding that someone had already been by that morning servicing the Link, which doesn’t yet have a functional tablet.

On the corner of 33rd Street, two men in street clothes had taken the side panels off one of the Links and were fiddling with the hardware inside, presumably making official repairs. “I can’t talk to the press,” one of them said, after the other alerted him that they were being photographed.

A bit further up-town, the bustling midtown crowds moved right past the active Link on 45th Street. Tareq Islam, who works at a halal cart just across from the Link, had tried to get connected when the Link was first installed some weeks ago, but gave up after a few tries when the hot spot wasn’t showing up on his phone. He said he was pleasantly surprised that it worked when he tried it Friday, saying now he’ll use it all the time. “I need to connect,” he said, but also noted that he’s not worried about just using his cell data like he always has.

Mike Rose was one of the few who stopped next to the 45th Street Link to check it out and see how fast the Wi-Fi really was, because “that’s been the selling point,” he said. Rose works a few blocks south where another Link has been installed but not yet activated, and he’s looking forward to seeing if his office will be in range.

“Once they are all up and running it’s going to be fantastic,” he said. “But it will take a little while to get there.”

Quick Facts

By July, the city plans to have 500 active Links.

The next installments will be in St. George, Staten Island; Jamaica, Queens; South Bronx; and Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, Northern Manhattan and 8th Avenue above 14th Street.

By 2019, the city plans to have 4,500 active Links, and 7,500 are planned in total.

LinkNYC is funded entirely by advertisements displayed on each kiosk’s two flat screens, so it doesn’t cost the taxpayers anything.

Hundreds of users can use one Link at the same time.

Superman will have to change in a Starbucks bathroom.