“When I first got to New York I was getting lost all the time and was running out of cellphone data,” Tisch freshman, Jazmin Palmer, told Washington Square News. “It would have really been helpful to have access to Wi-Fi and maps all around the city.”
This is precisely the service LinkNYC set out to deliver by converting old pay phones into helpful free kiosks around the city. Yet the plan didn’t work out as hoped and LinkNYC announced it would be disconnecting the web browsing element from its flagship kiosks just eight months after launch. This, it seems, was because people were abusing them by watching porn on the pavement and colonising the space for personal use.
LinkNYC stressed in a statement: “we are removing web browsing on all Link tablets while we work with the City and community to explore potential solutions, like time limits. Other tablet features—free phone calls, maps, device charging, and access to 311 and 911—will continue to work as they did before, and nothing is changing about LinkNYC’s superfast Wi-Fi.”
So, what are the wider repercussions of all this? The dream of free Wi-Fi for all in public spaces on personal devices is one that has been realised in many global cities. Yet this enviable next step has proved an epic fail in New York. Surely this could have severe implications in many parts of the world – especially emerging markets – where this kind of comprehensive service could have a significant impact on ordinary people’s lives.
Todd Mersch, co-founder of XCellAir, which helps optimise Wi-Fi, suggests: “Providing internet access to all is a fantastic idea, but doing it through fixed kiosks is fundamentally flawed. By tethering the service to a specific location, only those willing to loiter will use it. New York’s kiosk experience shows there is a reason businesses put up ‘no loitering’ signs in the first place.”
He adds: “Studies have found that smartphone penetration for people who are homeless is not too different from the general population – so providing wireless internet is the key, not the means to access it.”
Yet Aaron Partouche, Marketing & Business Development Director at Colt Technology Services takes a different view. He believes this will not be the last time that kiosks and connected infrastructure of this nature will be trialled throughout the world. “Feedback from projects such as LinkNYC indicates the wider issues that may arise with such roll outs, and illustrates what considerations governments and technology providers need to address in plans for similar future projects.”
He highlights that we are beginning to see more intelligent WI-FI technology solutions, with customised access control via smart controllers housed remotely in datacentres.
“Smart controllers can enable WI-FI kiosks to manage some level of control in relation to time limits and website restrictions. Telecoms engineering skills will be required to manage the wireless traffic that Wi-Fi kiosks and other related solutions could pose to a network,” he says.
The real challenge, as he sees it, for most countries around the world will be to develop the business case for projects and to secure funding. “Collaboration will be key in tackling both,” he says.
If this can be managed effectively Partouche does not think that this high profile failure needs to be a death blow to other similar projects, including those that could do real good in emerging parts of the world.
“The failed LinkNYC project should not be seen as a negative reflection of the future of these types of initiatives in our metropolitan cities, but instead as an indication of its adoption and potential,” he concludes. “Without whole market and user adoption, with effective reporting and analysis, the issues that have faced this specific project would not have been identified or resolved so early in this process.”
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