New York City to Offer Free Gigabit Wi-Fi in 2015

New York City on Monday unveiled an ambitious plan to roll out a free city-wide municipal Wi-Fi network that officials say will be the fastest and most wide-reaching network of its kind in the world.

At a press conference at City Hall, the city unveiled LinkNYC, which will rely on thousands of kiosks that will be deployed at locations currently occupied by pay phones. The kiosks will be installed in as many as 10,000 locations throughout the five boroughs and will offer Wi-Fi service of one gigabit per second within a radius of 150 feet. They'll also offer free domestic voice calls to all 50 states. The first of the kiosks is expected to begin service in late 2015.

The winning concept came from a consortium of several companies known as Citybridge, which includes the wireless chip company Qualcomm and Titan, the company that runs the largest network of pay phones in the city.

Others include Control Group, a design firm, and Comark, a company that specializes in building ruggedized electronics. Working with the city's Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, their plan calls for the network of kiosks to be supported by as much as $500 million in advertising revenue over a dozen years and cost taxpayers nothing.

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NYC Transforms Into Wi-Fi Hub
NYC Transforms Into Wi-Fi Hub   

The effort, if successful, would seem to make good on a promise by Mayor Bill De Blasio to expand broadband access across the city.

Cable modem and fiber broadband service are readily available throughout much of the city. Officially, some 96 percent of the population have had access to broadband service (if they're willing and able to pay for it) since 2009.

But Maya Wiley, counsel to the Mayor, said as many as one in five New Yorkers rely on mobile phones for Internet access, often via prepaid services that have finite access to data. "That access has a cost when you're doing things like tracking your kids' grades or accessing city services," she said.

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Municipal Wi-Fi efforts in the U.S. and around the world certainly have a checkered history. In the most infamous case in 2004, San Francisco's then-Mayor Gavin Newsom promised city-wide Wi-Fi backed by Google and Earthlink. It failed when it proved impractical, though several years later Google came through in part by deploying Wi-Fi in 30-odd city parks.

One successful example is in Minneapolis, where 117 hotspots blanket the entire city.

This is not the first effort to boost Wi-Fi access in New York City. Last year, Google agreed to provide free Wi-Fi in an area of Manhattan that surrounds its offices, which happens to be its second-largest outpost after its headquarters in Mountain View.

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Meanwhile, another effort called Transit Wireless has been adding Wi-Fi to the New York subway system, but it's frustrating to use.

Here's a closer look at the kiosks themselves, which will be called Links. The one with the extra digital display will be used in commercial settings, and the screens will be used to display ads and public service announcements as well as to help communicate in an emergency. The thinner unit will be in residential areas.

A LinkNYC location
Source: LinkNYC
A LinkNYC location

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