Google May Make New York City Pay Phones Actually Useful

New York City wants to turn its phone booths into a huge Wi-Fi network.

Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

Instead of bulldozing its pay phone booths, New York City wants to outfit them as free Wi-Fi hot spots. It’s an idea that was first tossed around by the Bloomberg administration in 2012 as a way of turning the city’s thousands of largely unused phone booths into something of general use. Two years later, Mayor Bill de Blasio has rekindled interest in the plan and outlined an ambitious vision for transforming the outdated technology into “one of the largest free Wi-Fi networks in the country.”

Rather than divide the hot spots up piecemeal, the city is looking for a single firm or partnership to run the entire system. Now Bloomberg reports that Google might be looking to get in on the action. According to documents from the New York City Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, Google attended an informational meeting in May about the project. Cisco, IBM, and Samsung were also present.

Google’s interest in the city’s phone-booth Wi-Fi, as Bloomberg points out, fits with the Internet giant’s larger efforts to bring fast and efficient connectivity to various regions of the world. Google Loon, perhaps its best-known venture in this arena, is an ambitious effort to create “Internet for everyone” (and perhaps to collect the kind of data only heard of in science fiction) using huge balloons that float in the stratosphere. Google Fiber, another such project, is bringing ultra-high-speed Internet to a handful of cities and metro areas across the U.S.

New York expects whomever wins the proposal to pay it a minimum annual compensation of $17.5 million or 50 percent of gross revenues, whichever is greater. The selected provider will not be allowed to charge for Wi-Fi but will be able to attach fees to traditional phone service (excepting 911 and 311 calls). Most of the money generated would come from advertisers, who love seeing their billboards plastered along streets and sidewalks at eye level for passersby.

At any rate, the important point is that this proposal has sat around for so long that people feared it might never happen. But with tech firms like Google showing interest, it just might get off the ground after all.