Google may bring Wi-Fi to New York City pay phones

The company went to a meeting on the city's plan for 'communication points' with free Wi-Fi

Google may be among the hopefuls vying to turn the New York City phone booths of the past into "communication points" of the future with free Wi-Fi and cellphone charging.

The dominant search company was among 60 entities that attended a meeting on May 12 to discuss a project to replace or supplement as many as 10,000 pay phones around the city. The list came to light in a Bloomberg News report on Monday. Other participants included Samsung, IBM, Cisco Systems, Verizon Wireless, Cablevision and Time Warner Cable.

Responses to the "request for proposals" (RFP) from vendors were due Monday. Google, or any other participant in the May 12 meeting, may have pulled out of the process before filing one. Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

But it seems likely the company will at least submit a plan, given the opportunity to blanket much of New York's streetscape with Wi-Fi. Despite some false starts and headaches in free public Wi-Fi in the past, Google looks more serious than ever about providing new forms of Internet access. It's selling gigabit-speed service via fiber in Provo, Utah, and Kansas City, and plans to expand that service to Austin, Texas. A Google request for information sent to 34 other prospective Google Fiber cities suggested the company is looking at adding a Wi-Fi component to that service, too. Far outside major cities, its balloon-based Project Loon is being tested in licensed frequencies sometimes used for LTE cellular networks.

The New York project would be vast and potentially lucrative, as well as high profile. There are currently more than 7,000 pay-phone sites spread across all five boroughs of the city, and about 4,000 of them carry advertising on the sides. The winning bidder for the upgrade project would share ad revenue with the city, which says it would pay them at least US$17.5 million in compensation.

At the New York pay-phone sites, Google could bring together a wide range of technologies. The city envisions the communication points as essentially pay phones brought into the 21st century. The installations would include free Wi-Fi for at least 85 feet around each site that has advertising, as well as phone service and the ability to make free 911 emergency and 311 information calls. The city's also encouraging applicants to offer cellphone charging stations, short local calls for free, text messaging, touchscreens for information or business transactions, and built-in sensors to monitor the local environment.

There might also be other ways for Google to make money off the service or get value out of it. In a list of answers to questions, the city said it's encouraging applicants to propose generating revenue from data collected by the communication points. It will also consider plans involving data mining and push advertising if the operator shares revenue with the city. And though the Wi-Fi element is intended mostly as a free service, applicants can propose selling some of the network's capacity to help ease traffic on cellular networks.

The pay phones no longer belong to Verizon Communications, the local wireline phone company, but are currently owned and operated by 10 companies with franchise agreements with the city. Those agreements expire in October. The phones, often forgotten in the cellular age, returned to the spotlight in 2012 when they served as lifelines after cellular and other networks were damaged by Hurricane Sandy.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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