Who Will Own the Smart City?
By now you’ve probably seen those silver, black and blue monoliths on the streets of Manhattan. Looking like giant cell phones, they’re part of LinkNYC, the communication network CityBridge has installed in New York City as a replacement for 7,500 pay phones. These 10,000 electronic slabs are also something else: an early and somewhat faltering step on the road to the Smart City, dressed up now as a new class of street fixture.
CityBridge is a digital consortium that includes Intersection (Google’s Sidewalk Labs is an investor), Qualcomm, and CIVIQ Smartscapes. On the street, the LinkNYC totems have two 55-inch high-definition screens, one on each side, facing down the blocks. At each station, they provide New Yorkers and visitors with advertising and public service announcements, free gigabit WiFi and domestic calls, two USB charging ports, and direct access to 911 and 311. While the LinkNYC is running, its underlying network is quietly collecting email addresses from first time users.
The system uses a new technology known as Passpoint that lets any WiFi hotspot work like a cellphone tower. This technology allows phones to automatically connect from one hotspot to the next without having to log on to a new network. This seamless approach has some obvious benefits: it uses less cellular data, and comes with a secure WPA-2 encryption. Originally the kiosks had a browser function, but it was disconnected, because too many homeless people used it to watch porn at night, some of them even setting up makeshift encampments, complete with discarded furniture. (Talk about unintended design consequences.)
So, what’s it like to use them? For six months, I conducted an informal study. During that time, I saw a grand total of four people use the chargers and touchscreens. That doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of people using the free Wi-Fi, it just wasn’t apparent to me. The city’s Open Data Plan claims that there were more than seven million sessions during the week of May 8th, so someone is clearly using them.
I tried out LinkNYC at several different locations in Brooklyn and Manhattan. The phone function is accessed by an embedded Android screen or a physical touchpad. Out of laziness, and for fun, I called my wife, who was down the block. Not really a fair test of the system, but once a call has been routed through a network and then to a cell tower, all calls are essentially equal. The audio quality was decent. Along with the calls, LinkNYC also provides maps and directions from the Android tablet, directly from Google’s web based mapping program.
As for the totem’s design, I found its slick industrial form and modern utilitarian curves (designed by Antenna) attractive but a bit cold. Coupled with their formidable size, they seemed foreboding and unapproachable. To survive New York City’s mercurial weather, tough audience, and random acts of vandalism, they need to be rugged. And while I can appreciate the challenges of designing tech-driven street furniture, I wonder if they could have been warmer and more visually inviting.
CityBridge’s business model here is to provide all of these free services, in exchange for a portion of the advertising revenues generated by the flat-screen displays. According to the NYC Department of Information Technology and Telecommunication, LinkNYC is expected to generate more than $500 million for the city in the first 12 years of operation.
The rollout of LinkNYC, along with other installations of similar initiatives in sixteen other cities, is just the first step in the company’s quest to capitalize on the potential data and revenue from the Smart City movement. (Google is also stepping into the fray, introducing programs for transportation and healthcare).
Like all new technology platforms, LinkNYC is a double edge sword. The system does bring free domestic phone calls and wireless services to the street, but it does so on the cheap (the city is partnering with a for-profit concern) and doesn’t fully address the digital and socioeconomic divides of the city. While an early piece in the New York Daily News reported that the system was expected to operate considerably slower in Staten Island and in poorer neighborhoods of Brooklyn and the Bronx, CitiBridge says that kiosks in all five boroughs currently offer gigabit WiFi service.
Tech Times’ review of LinkNYC claimed generous a WiFi radius of 400 feet, but the furthest consistent connection I could get, from experiments in several locations, was 150 feet. I’m not sure this will do much to address digital inequality. Perhaps for those fortunate enough to live in the immediate area of a LinkNYC kiosk, but even for them it will be a bit like crossing the digital divide on a rickety bamboo bridge.
After using NYCLink more than a dozen times, in different locations, under a variety of conditions, I was always left with a few nagging questions, one of them purely practical, the others considerably less so. The practical one is pretty straightforward: What immediate purpose does NYCLink serve, when virtually everyone carries a cell phone that already does all of this stuff?
Right now, NYCLink seems innocuous enough. At best, it’s a digital pit stop; at worst, another set of screens on streets increasingly filled with them. But there are complicated questions looming.
Right now, NYCLink seems innocuous enough. At best, it’s a digital pit stop; at worst, another set of screens on streets increasingly filled with them. But there are complicated questions looming. Regardless of CityBridge’s well-meaning corporate statements on privacy, the data from these kiosks and all of the communication on its network will still reside on their servers.
And, as the technology becomes more robust, as it almost certainly will, the larger questions will get even trickier: how much control—over our personal data, digital profiles, even over our movements and use of the city—should we allow for-profit companies to possess? Are these shared resources, subject to public accountability and oversight, or profit centers? The Smart City is coming, whether we like it or not, so asking who will own, control, and profit from it, is a question worth asking now, before it’s too late.
Corrections: A previous version of this essay overstated the direct involvement of Google. They are investors in Sidewalk Labs, not owners. In addition, advertising and gigabit Wifi service was not limited to LinkNYC kiosks in Manhattan and Brooklyn, as was earlier reported. We regret the errors. Featured image, via Wikipedia Commons. All other images by the author.