New York City is looking for a partner to bring its thousands of pay phones into the internet age. The New York Times reports that yesterday, the city put out a call for bids on its public pay phone system, which currently includes around 10,000 phones across the five boroughs. Right now, ten companies have a franchise to operate parts of the network, but those contracts expire on October 15th of this year, and the system itself is in need of an overhaul as New Yorkers depend less on landline telephony and more on internet services. Mayor Bill de Blasio hopes to see kiosks revamped with Wi-Fi hotspots and a new design — no longer just pay phones but "public communications structures."
Whoever wins the franchise will pay the larger of either 50 percent of gross revenues or $17.5 million, the amount New York received from operators in 2013; the contract would run until at least 2026. The new phone kiosks will need to carry less advertising, but they can be taller than existing structures, if that's necessary for the hotspot equipment. The city already solicited a number of designs for a pay phone of the future in a contest that ended in 2013; winning concepts included a stainless steel tower by Frog Design and a distributed sensor network that could map weather conditions and pollution levels. None of these ideas, however, will necessarily make it into the final kiosk. De Blasio advisor Jeff Merritt tells the Times that the city left details about what the new phone system should look like deliberately vague in order to give companies more creative oversight: "We wanted to give them the flexibility to put forward ideas that covered the entire spectrum."
New York's pay phone and municipal Wi-Fi systems have been the subject of a long, slow modernization process. 27 pay phones across the city, most of them in Manhattan, already offer Wi-Fi hotspot access as part of a pilot program that started in 2012. A number of "smart screens," which provide tourist information and public service announcements, were also launched that year. Separately, the city has made deals for limited public Wi-Fi service through Time Warner Cable and Cablevision, which are required to offer it as part of their internet franchise agreements until 2020, and an agreement with AT&T provides unlimited access in some public parks.