Take Heart, Pay Phones: When You Die, You Become WiFi


New York City has found a way to breathe new life into old tech.

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Walk around New York City long enough, and you'll likely encounter an abandoned pay phone kiosk. Encountering this kiosk will likely make you a little bit sad, and that will likely be because the kiosk will have been not so much abandoned as abused: its phone removed, its exterior surfaces covered in grime and/or graffiti, its interior surfaces covered in grime and gum. This will possibly strike you as an undignified way for a thing to meet its demise, even if that thing is a piece of increasingly obsolete technology.

On behalf of abandoned kiosks everywhere, then: good news. New York City is going to be converting a group of them into wifi hotspots. YES.

The connectivity will be time-unlimited, free to users, and free of ads -- at least for the pilot project. And it'll offer a wireless range of up to 200 feet. New York's Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications is providing the service through a partnership with Titan, the city's largest payphone provider, and Van Wagner Communications. And though the program is launching with only ten locations in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, DoITT will be adding more in the coming months -- including the Bronx and Staten Island.

There is much to like about this, even if you happen not to be a resident of any of New York's boroughs. For one thing, the kiosk conversion project transfers the elegant logic of trash recycling to the urban infrastructure. When it comes to obsolete (or, well, obsolete-ish) technologies, our impulse tends to be: Get rid of them, and as quickly as possible. Tear out those cable lines; get rid of those train tracks. Because, ugh, they are so ten years ago. And while that impulse can be pragmatic -- there's a reason New York's pay phone population has dropped from 45,000 to 12,000 since its 1980s peak -- it can also lead to inefficiencies. Removing pay phone kiosks from the urban landscape is expensive and work-intensive; much better, if possible, to convert those kiosks into something that fits the current technological environment. Much better, when possible, to graft the future onto the past.

The payphone-to-hotspot transition is an attempt to do that layering in a way that minimizes friction and optimizes the user experience of the city itself. It's the tech incarnation of Manhattan's lauded High Line, which successfully converted urban blight into urban awesome. The hotspot experiment gives city-dwellers something they can't get enough of -- wireless connectivity -- while making use of infrastructure that is, at this point, overly abundant. And, as a bonus: It takes pieces of sad, abandoned technology and gives them a shiny new chance at relevance.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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