The Internet of (Government) Things: Technology in public spaces that serves public purposes.

In October 2014, the City of New York's franchise agreement to provide a citywide network of payphones expired. Anticipating the franchise’s expiration (and payphones’ obsolescence), City Hall asked residents: How would you reinvent payphones? The answer: the largest, fastest free public wireless network ever.

The function of government is to protect residents, provide for their health and well-being, and deliver public goods. Increasingly, public goods include Internet access. In order to compete in a 21st century economy, government must ensure residents and business have access to information and each other at all times, anywhere in the world. Delivering Internet to residents expands government’s business model; the digital technology that the Internet enables introduces significant challenges and opportunities for government’s operating model.

In New York City, Mayor de Blasio classifies high-speed, affordable access to the Internet as an essential service.[1] Yet the City of New York is ill-equipped to dig up its own streets and install fiber optic cable to connect residents. In order to provide access to all New Yorkers, the City has adapted a 20th century operating model for the 21st century.

Historically, franchise agreements between the City and private sector partners facilitate installation and maintenance of telecommunications infrastructure.[2] By enabling private sector partners to dig up city streets and charge residents for services, the City retains power to negotiate the best deal for taxpayers and delegates a legal obligation to provide reliable service to residents.

In October 2014, the City of New York’s franchise agreement to provide a citywide network of payphones expired. Anticipating the franchise’s expiration (and payphones’ obsolescence), City Hall asked residents: How would you reinvent payphones?[3] Through public comments, residents agreed that these relics of our streetscape should become 21st century communication devices. The City used a “Call for Innovations” model [4] to solicit detailed approaches to leverage the wired corridors that powered payphones of the past to develop and install 21st century communications portals.

An industrial design firm called Control Group, advertising vendor Titan, structural engineering and manufacturing firm CIVIQ Smartscapes, and telecommunications firm Qualcomm joined forces to take on the challenge.[5] Under the new name “CityBridge,” this consortium developed what are now known as Links: gigabit speed WiFi stations with touch-screen connections to government services and elsewhere on the web (residents can make old-fashioned phone calls, too).[6] Like their predecessor, these modern day “payphones” earn revenue from advertising displays on the sides of the tower. Unlike their predecessor, Links are free to users. When completed, LinkNYC will create the largest and fastest public wireless network anywhere in the world, at no cost to tax payers.[7]

At least not monetarily.

CityBridge describes LinkNYC’s “groundbreaking digital OOH advertising network” as an opportunity for brands to use a “context-aware platform to reach New Yorkers and visitors,”[8] causing concern among civil liberties and privacy groups. In a letter to Mayor de Blasio’s Chief Counsel Maya Wiley, the New York Civil Liberties Union claimed that LinkNYC created “a class of residents who otherwise cannot afford the Internet and must pay for their access with their right to privacy.”[9]

To access LinkNYC, users must register with an email address. The network anonymizes and aggregates this data, which it uses to improve the user experience and better target advertising on its digital displays.[10] LinkNYC boasts a strong privacy policy, which states that only when legally obligated will CityBridge share personal information about a user with a third party, like the government.[11]

Finally, LinkNYC’s business model relies on revenue from advertising. Links in high-traffic areas such as Times Square generate more advertising revenue than a neighborhood on Staten Island, given their relative exposures to potential customers. Additionally, the Internet speed of each tower is tied directly to the number of potential users at any given time. As a result, the denser the area, faster the Internet. This led elected officials and the press to perceive City Hall as discriminating against neighborhoods with fewer tourists and pedestrians. Many of these neighborhoods align with neighborhoods that are underserved already.[12]

While imperfect, LinkNYC’s present a significant operating opportunity for governments to fulfill their new business responsibility to provide affordable and high-speed Internet connectivity to residents. The digital transformation of our economy has led to new challenges for data collection and measures of equity — and to be sure these issues are far from unresolved. For many, LinkNYC demonstrates the power of digital technology to improve government’s operating model efficiency. For others, this free public good comes with a hefty price tag: privacy.

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Student comments on The Internet of (Government) Things: Technology in public spaces that serves public purposes.

  1. Great article JES! City governments treating access to Wi-fi/Internet as an essential service is a 21st-century approach to bolster communication. You pointed out the massive challenge in getting this service off the ground, both in terms of infrastructure and economics of the service. But one of the things which I found intriguing is the unequal access to high-quality service. As your post points out, where the density of people is high, the service is faster and vice versa. How do some of the under-developed or less busy areas look at this relationship? This article ( does point out some of these concerns. So it will be interesting to see how this relationship of revenue-people density will play out in some of these areas of the city, will their be a lower cap to provide a basic level of service? Nonetheless, even with these incremental challenges, NYC is leading the way in Digitisation of basic communication!

  2. Great post- thanks for sharing! I think it’s impressive that the city of New York is trying to provide free wifi access to its citizens. New York is a global hub for tech and other cities look to New York as the model for city planning. As an example, I recently read that London is also planning to roll out wifi kiosks to its streets starting in 2017.

    I do think the requiring users to enter their email address is a privacy concern for many. However, I am more concerned that with unrestricted internet access, some users may try to use the internet to view adult content or use it for other inappropriate content. Regardless of the privacy concerns, I think this is a great idea and am curious to see how popular these kiosks will be!


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