Visit most public libraries in any American city and you’ll see folks in line to get online. More than 90 percent of people have access to broadband in the U.S., but nearly half of some demographic groups, in particular Hispanic households, don’t have broadband.

At one time, in some circles, there was a movement to spread Wi-Fi across entire cities. It’s mostly gone now in part because telecoms bought so aggressively against them. News coming out of New York this week could restart that movement.

A few days ago, the Big Apple started turning former payphones into free Wi-Fi hubs, providing the fastest public Wi-Fi in the world. Each has a gigabyte-per-second download rate and permits free domestic VOIP calls. Ultimately, more than 7,500 LinkNYC kiosks will be installed around the city.

New York expects the new kiosks from CityBridge, a consortium of companies including Titan and Qualcomm, to generate half a billion dollars in revenue from advertising over the next 12 years.

Another project, cellphone-signal-boosting tech, being used now in Los Angeles, may soon be installed on New York street lamps.

Both those projects could create another economic shift. Like the addition of Google Fiber in some markets, adding more choices raises competition and can lower costs for consumers.

There’s a case against giving Wi-Fi away. You can argue it’s redundant, since virtually every public space and many major stores – Target, McDonald’s, Starbucks – offer some flavor of free Wi-Fi. You can say there are security risks. And, as is the rule with almost anything free, LinkNYC plans to collect data from users. You can also say there are better, more NewCo, ways to address the digital divide.

Regardless, this is an experiment worth watching and maybe even rooting for. From putting this idea into the hands of civic tech hackers to imagining ways these machines can bring people together, it’s fun to consider the ways these hubs can enrich communities.

Want to follow the biggest story in business? Get our NewCo Daily newsletter.

Photo Credit: Sean O’Kane

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *