A new design for a much taller, 5G-enabled LinkNYC kiosk received a limited approval Monday—clearing one of the de Blasio administration’s central technology initiatives to restart in commercial and industrial districts following a three-year hiatus. Back in October The Public Design Commission panned the new taller design for 5G — 10/18/2021 from Crains
From Crain 12/14
But the restart of the LinkNYC program—which seven years ago promised to replace city payphones with free Wi-Fi kiosks—will not yet take place in districts zoned for residential. The Public Design Commission voted against allowing the proposed 32-foot-tall kiosks in residential areas without further study.
Called the Link5G, the taller kiosks are an attempt to reboot the public-private initiative by pairing free Wi-Fi with the next-generation 5G cellular service. The previous LinkNYC effort stalled out when the private operator, CityBridge, fell millions behind sales projections for display advertising on the kiosks, which was supposed to fund the Wi-Fi. The updated project will be funded partly through fees collected from cell carriers in exchange for hosting 5G equipment.
Signe Nielsen, president of the commission, said the commissioners would reconsider allowing the equipment in residential and historic districts once there is more financial data on the rollout for the rest of the city.
The Public Design Commission, an appointed board with oversight of art and infrastrcuture on public spaces, in its vote heeded the concerns of some neighborhoods and preservationists groups. Those groups noted the 5G kiosks are three times taller than the original design and will be led by the same operator that fell $70 million in debt to the city for agreed upon revenue-sharing payments.
On the other hand, proponents of the project warned that the limited approval could hurt LinkNYC’s ability to address inequities in internet access throughout the city. More than one million New Yorkers lack a broadband subscription and LinkNYC’s operators say the program could bring both free Wi-Fi and greater fiber wiring to neighborhoods where access is most limited.
While the initiative once promised to bring free Wi-Fi citywide, the existing Links are heavily focused in Manhattan. CityBridge is operated by outdoor advertising company Intersection, which counts Sidewalk Labs (an offshoot of Google parent company Alphabet) as an investor.
The Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, which oversees LinkNYC, agreed earlier this year to restructure the deal to accommodate 5G equipment as a more sustainable revenue stream. ZenFi Networks, a telecom infrastructure company, agreed to invest $200 million in CityBridge to help restart the program as part of the larger 5G buildout in New York.
The new deal requires that at least 2,000 5G-enabled Links be placed outside of Midtown and Lower Manhattan, bringing both 5G connectivity and free public Wi-Fi to areas that are underserved for internet options. CityBridge’s annual ad revenue sharing requirements to the city were cut significantly, so long as the company pays back the money it owes.
What’s next for LinkNYC
DOITT Commissioner Jessica Tisch said the initial Link5G rollout is still possible without residential neighborhoods included, though she cautioned that the policy will hurt the program’s ability to bridge the digital divide.
“Will this delay the rollout into residential? Yes,” Tisch told the design commission. “But I feel like this is as reasonable a proposal as I am going to get.”
CityBridge and DOITT say the height is necessary to meet federal guidelines for cellular equipment and to provide a stronger overall signal. Moreover, the single design will allow multiple carriers to install cellular equipment in a single place, potentially cutting down on the overall level of equipment for 5G.
See the proposed new look for the LinkNYC kiosk
Tisch said DOITT could return to the commission after several months with updated data on the commercial and industrial Link5G installations in order to get residential approval. CityBridge is also required to submit a more detailed plan for educational outreach about Link5G.
“We are both pleased that the PDC approved the design for Link5G and are excited to bring the benefits of free high-speed Wi-Fi and 5G service to millions of New Yorkers, which is critical to fulfilling the city’s equity goals and helping close the digital divide,” said Nick Colvin, CEO of CityBridge. “We look forward to expanding the program to residential areas.”
Following the vote, Tisch added in a statement that the city also has gotten cell carriers to agree to a universal design for 5G equipment on street poles and rooftops.
“This did not happen in a vacuum: it took a collaborative effort between government, design experts, and the private sector, including all of the major telecom carriers,” Tisch said. “This approved streetscape of the future, coupled with the contractual underpinnings of the 5G buildout, should keep New York City on the cutting edge for years to come.”
Background August 30, 2021 from StateScoop
Under its original 15-year contract signed in 2014, the vendor, CityBridge, was supposed to have installed 3,153 kiosks by July 20, 2020. But as of that date, it had only built 1,869 — more than half of which are concentrated in the tonier parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn. The Bronx, where city officials estimate 38% of households lack high-speed internet service, only has 137 kiosks, less than half the number built in the Manhattan ZIP code that contains Times Square, DiNapoli’s office found.
Moreover, CityBridge, a consortium of tech companies that contributed to the kiosks, has been slow to send the city government its cut of the advertising revenue it collects. According to its original contract, CityBridge was required to pay New York City either $20 million or 50% of ad revenues annually, whichever sum was greater. But by March 2020, CityBridge was $68.93 million behind, including interest.
The kiosks were also found to often be in poor condition. Of 227 LinkNYC locations auditors checked, 76% were found to have “cleanliness and/or operation issues, including dirty/grimy tablet screens; physical damage; and defective screens/screen icons, telephones and USB charging ports,” the report read. There also hasn’t been a new kiosk installed since 2018.