A chance at a second life? Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images
A chance at a second life? Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The homely pay phones of New York City are ghostly, graffiti-scarred reminders of an earlier era. But they could play a role in the city's digital environment if New York gets its priorities straight. The crucial step is for the city to treat these pay phones as it does its bridges or trees: like basic infrastructure, not just opportunities for short-term revenue.

Last week, New York received bids from companies interested in replacing the nearly 10,000 existing pay phones throughout the five boroughs with upgraded, attractive structures. The city is calling for free public Wi-Fi, among other amenities, to be provided by the winning bidder.

What's the connection between Wi-Fi and pay phones? Wi-Fi works by opening up the end of a telecommunications wire for shared use by devices using public airwaves for transmitting and receiving communications. Pay phones are connected to communication lines and power, which makes the city's call for them to serve as Wi-Fi hot spots reasonable. For New Yorkers and tourists alike, having free Wi-Fi widely available is crucial.

The city already has free Wi-Fi hot spots in many of its parks, run by AT&T Inc. or Cablevision Systems Corp. The problem is that those hot spots don't offer very good service: They are connected to low-capacity lines, making anything other than slowly downloading e-mail a frustrating experience.

Comcast Corp. is turning its subscribers' home wires into "neighborhood hotspots"; it already has more than 1 million Xfinity Wi-Fi hot spots in operation. Although the company calls that "public Wi-Fi," it's not -- it's Wi-Fi for people who buy a subscription from a cable company. Comcast's plan is to extend its dominance over wires in homes to sidewalks and cafes.

The company wants to make sure that anyone watching video outside or in a restaurant is using its hot spot to watch Comcast's "TV Everywhere" online service. If Comcast merges with Time Warner Cable Inc., Manhattan, Staten Island, Queens and parts of Brooklyn will become Comcast country.

The city has an opportunity to use its pay phones to change this picture. The pay-phone franchise deal should be part of a larger commitment by the city to connect every snazzy new pay-phone structure to reasonably priced open fiber lines regulated by the city. The successful bidder's obligation to provide truly public (and free) Wi-Fi hot spots in exchange for the opportunity to advertise its brand would be a winning combination for citizens and visitors alike.

Only with fiber will the new structures be able to handle data-heavy uploads and downloads as well as low-bandwidth e-mail checking. Result: the ability for people standing near the new pay phones to be part of the 21st-century Internet. Cities around the globe have free Wi-Fi; it is a standard utility, like public toilets and a functioning public transport system. If we do this right, tourists and residents won't need to subscribe to Comcast in order to watch or upload video -- whether for entertainment or emergency purposes. (Another entry on the wish list: charging stations for handheld devices.)

The problem is that the city doesn't seem ready to make the additional investments necessary for its Wi-Fi project to succeed. The company that wins the contract to spruce up pay phones can do a great job, but unless New York improves the communication lines that run between those pay phones, the result of this enterprise will be second-rate Wi-Fi.

So New York will need to make a trade-off. Right now, the city is hoping this project will be a moneymaker right off the bat, and it is planning no investments or contributions of its own. That may not be feasible.

These new kiosks will be basic infrastructure for the city. They should be beacons of information for tourists and neighborhoods, stations of light and power for all of us (powered by solar energy, if possible, in preparation for the next Hurricane Sandy), and homes of ample, free connectivity. That will take the city's collaboration. The city's priority should be its long-term health and sustainability rather than its short-term profits.

To contact the writer of this article: Susan Crawford at scrawford@scrawford.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net.