Is New York City’s Public Wi-Fi Actually Connecting the Poor?

I spent hours visiting LinkNYC internet kiosks to find out if they were helping bridge the digital divide.

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Sep 14 2016, 11:00am

Link NYC users. Image: Michael Hirsch

Two young men sit on the corner of 3rd Avenue and 54th Street, huddled against a tall silver obelisk on a hot summer day. One man is sprawled on the ground in dirty sweatpants, and the other is 20-something, shirtless and examining an iPhone plugged into the kiosk's USB port. Around them on the ground is a backpack, a duffel, loose cigarettes, and a roughed-up phone.

LinkNYC, New York City's newest communications network, includes more than 350 kiosks installed on sidewalks throughout the city and was created to repurpose payphone infrastructure through public kiosks offering free internet, phone calls, and USB charging ports. The project is a collaboration between the city and a consortium of private technology and media companies including Sidewalk Labs, an Alphabet (read: Google) company, and represents an important innovation in the "smart city" movement integrating information and communication technologies into all aspects of urban life.

I spent nearly four hours of an August afternoon walking down 3rd Avenue—where Links now appear on almost every block—to see what it actually looks like we put our newest and most innovative technology out onto city streets, instead of into our pockets.

Read More: What the LinkNYC Project Means for the Average New Yorker

My small sample of Link users that Saturday afternoon suggests these kiosks are indeed mostly used by the city's least privileged. Of the 15 people I saw using a Link, only two or three of them would be likely to appear on LinkNYC promotional materials (i.e., one well-dressed woman making a phone call, or one middle aged, casually-dressed tourist waiting for his phone to finish charging).

A tourist charges his phone at a LinkNYC hub. Image: Michael Hirsch

Most users were more like the two young men on the street corner—camped out for the long haul, for hours or even days at a time, surrounded by their possessions and browsing music videos on YouTube, making phone calls, and checking Facebook. These campers often make themselves comfortable on makeshift chairs and couches devised from newspaper stands, milk crates, and furniture pulled from alleys and street corners.

Miraculously, it seems that these users face relatively little police harassment. The two young men on 54th Street said that they are there nearly every day, but that they usually don't have a problem. One of them told me: "They look at me like, 'okay, you on the floor', but they don't usually bother you...It depends on the police."

Given that these kiosks have already gained some notoriety for attracting the homeless, this apparent laissez-faire approach surprises me. I can imagine that the city would police these kiosks as part of brand management for this flagship piece of public infrastructure, a "first-of-its-kind communications network".

Admittedly, the city has repeatedly emphasized that a central part of the mission of LinkNYC is to help break down the digital divide. According to a 2015 report from the NYC Bureau of Policy and Research, about a quarter of NYC households lack broadband internet at home, and 32 percent of people outside the workforce lack broadband at home.

It is worth noting, however, that only 700 of the planned 7,500 Links are to be installed in the Bronx, the borough with the highest percentage of households without broadband. This raises the question of just how central the digital divide is to the mission of LinkNYC, or whether it is just the piece that seems sexiest to emphasize.

A LinkNYC user in Manhattan. Image: Michael Hirsch

And while the city may generally support the use of Links by those with restricted internet access, it is hard to say whether these home-offices-for-the-homeless are really what LinkNYC's designers or financial backers had in mind. In response to questions about this phenomena, LinkNYC recently stated that "We are in conversations with the city about how to ensure that links remain open and accessible for all, and are not monopolized by any individual users."

LinkNYC also represents the burgeoning "smart city" trend, meant to create a more efficient and intelligent city. However, a quick review of the companies behind LinkNYC suggests that the focus is less on the futuristic goal of improving citizen's daily lives, and more on the well-worn moneymaking practices of collecting user data and providing targeted digital advertising. As Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff stated, "We're in this business to make money."

Read More: LinkNYC's New Free Network Is Blazingly Fast. But At What Cost to Privacy?

While it is admirable that ad revenue from the kiosks pays for this public good, increasing digital surveillance and digital advertising doesn't seem like the fresh face of the future that one would hope for.

Meanwhile, the improvised chairs and office spaces created by NYC's street people suggests the emergent, innovative potential of this technology, regardless of the goals of its designers. The users I came across applied their own ingenuity to make the kiosks meet a set of needs not considered or not supported by LinkNYC's designers: the need for entertainment, and a space of comfort and connection.

To offer poor or homeless people prolonged access to LinkNYC might actually give them access to a resource that the "on the go urban professional" already has in their homes, their offices, and their pockets. For now, that seems promising.


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