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New York's public Wi-Fi hubs now have Android tablets

Starting today, New York City's first public Wi-Fi hubs are getting Android tablets, allowing New Yorkers to check their email, make a phone call, or find directions on Google Maps as easily as they once made a call on the public payphones the hubs are replacing. The tablets are going in a dozen-or-more LinkNYC kiosks along Third Avenue between 15th and 42nd streets, and will be included in all the future hubs as they are installed.

In addition to the tablets, the hubs include ports for headphones, so phone calls can be made privately, and USB chargers, so you can charge your phone while chatting online. And since security is an obvious concern, the tablets eventually time-out and the cookies are deleted after a minute of no activity. The tablets are custom-made by Intersection, the technology company that leads a consortium called CityBridge that operates and funds LinkNYC, and have been tested to withstand all types of stress and weather.

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Colin O'Donnell, Intersection's chief technology officer, said the tablets have been exposed to extremely cold (-4°F) and hot (104°F) temperatures, and testers have crashed cars into the kiosks to ensure they can withstand life on New York's unpredictable streets.

O'Donnell said over time, the tablets will be updated to include new features or technological improvements. And since these hubs are coming online during Mayor Bill de Blasio's administration — the mayor held an event to unveil the new tablets Thursday afternoon — he also stressed their usefulness for such activities as participatory budgeting, in which community members vote how to spend relatively small sums of city money, or learning about local issues or events, like a rock concert or a lost cat. "We're looking into how we can surface that information," O'Donnell said.

There are no time limits for tablet usage, nor are there any ads displayed on the screens — those are reserved for the two 55-inch displays on either side of the kiosks. Once you sign into the Wi-Fi, and save it on your device, you will never have to sign-in again at any of the LinkNYC hubs. O'Donnell said they expected a standard 150-foot range for the Wi-Fi, but were surprised to see over 400-foot ranges at some of the hubs. Still, while ground-floor retails adjacent to the hubs will likely benefit, the higher up you go the weaker the signal becomes. "Interference is always the enemy," he said.

"Interference is always the enemy."

I tested the tablet's browsing and voice call capabilities, and found them both to be highly functional. A call to my iPhone from the kiosk carried a 646 area code, and I was able to hear the caller fairly well, even though she wasn't using headphones and the sounds of passing street traffic were loud. Josh Berglund, engineering and program manager for CIVIQ Smartscapes, said the kiosks were designed to identify and filter out ambient sounds over time. Eventually video chat will be an additional feature, but not at this time.

Around 500 hubs are expected to be installed by mid-July. The full network will install more than 7,500 public hubs throughout the city, each replacing a pre-existing phone booth.

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