The consortium behind the LinkNYC program, originally intended to create a free Wi-Fi network across the five boroughs of New York City, owes the city tens of millions of dollars and stopped installing its kiosks in 2018, Politico reports.
The Links, as the nine-foot-tall kiosks were dubbed, were supposed to replace the city’s pay phones, providing free domestic phone calls, Wi-Fi, and USB charging ports. They had been projected to bring in an estimated $500 million in revenue for the city via advertising on the 55-inch screens. The CityBridge consortium includes Intersection, of which Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs is an investor (and yes that’s Alphabet as in Google’s parent company).
CityBridge unveiled the first of the kiosks in 2016 and has collected “millions of dollars” in advertising revenue from the kiosks installed so far, according to New York City commissioner of the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications Jessica Tisch. But the company is “delinquent” in its payments to the city, she told New York City Council. “CityBridge owes the City tens of millions of dollars, going back to [fiscal year] 19,” Tisch said. “All of this is against the backdrop of millions of dollars in advertising revenue that CityBridge has reported they received over the same time period.”
Only about 1,800 of more than 4,500 kiosks that were promised by mid-2019 have been installed, Politico reports, with the majority of the kiosks located in Manhattan. Installation has been an expensive, bumpy process that’s fallen short of expectations. Local internet access on the kiosks was revoked in 2016 after officials discovered people were using them to watch pornography in public. Privacy advocates expressed concerns about the way the kiosks could be used to collect data on users. And in 2018, the city agreed to give CityBridge more time to build out the network and share the collected ad revenue.
But Politico reports that CityBridge has tried to amend its agreement with the city in recent months. In a statement, the group said it was “working with the City of New York on a plan to address the financial viability of LinkNYC.”
Tisch told the city council that the city may sue CityBridge to enforce its contract, according to Politico.
In an email to The Verge, Nick Colvin, senior vice president at CityBridge, disputed the city’s characterization of the situation, calling Tisch’s presentation to city council “a fictional narrative that ignores the City’s responsibility for the current state of affairs.”
Installing the Link kiosks has been more difficult and costly than expected, Colvin says, “largely due to the city’s own incompetence and bureaucracy.” He says CityBridge has tried to work with the city to solve the problems but has been met with silence and delays. “The city can no longer lob accusations and ignore reality, but must be willing to meet and discuss the challenges facing the program, remove the roadblocks they have put in place, and work with us to identify solutions.”
Update March 5th, 1:22 PM ET: Added comment from CityBridge spokesperson.