How Citywide Wi-Fi Is Offering Advertisers Flexibility
ADWEEK|Feb 15, 2016

With LinkNYC, New York boasts the most advanced citywide wi-fi network in North America - and advertisers are charging up.

Janet Stilson

On a sunny January day, a young mother strolled along West 107th Street in New York, explaining a strange phenomenon to her son. Before cellphones, there used to be these things along the sidewalks you could put a coin in and make a telephone call from, she told her bewildered child. She might as well have been describing a wringer washing machine.

By the relatively recent end of their life cycle, those pay phones dotting the New York landscape had largely been beaten into a state of dysfunction. But soon, they will be replaced by sleek, WiFi-enabled kiosks, making New York home to the most advanced citywide wireless network in North America.

This is one of a couple of dozen cities around the world edging ever closer to becoming what is known as a “smart city,” an urban location tightly connected with advanced forms of technology involving not only mobile devices and ads but sophisticated forms of healthcare, energy, transportation, property management, and waste and water systems. A city must be advanced in several of those areas in order to become a smart city, according to market research and consulting firm Frost & Sullivan, which projects that there will be 26 such cities worldwide by 2025. What’s more, “there will be hundreds of cities that will try and adopt one or two smart city areas over the course of the next few years,” says Archana Amarnath, a global director at the firm.

Aside from New York, cities including Rio de Janeiro, Singapore, Lisbon, London, even Kansas City are aggressively seeking to become smart cities, with Singapore aiming to become the first “smart country.” But for now, all eyes are on New York, whose old pay phones have in recent weeks been swiftly getting replaced by kiosks powered by LinkNYC, the city’s free wireless network. LinkNYC is “first and foremost a utility for the people of the city that also doubles up as an advertising network. It has the fastest Internet speed available—not only is it enabling Wi-Fi in the city, but it’s at gigabit speed,” says Mike Gamaroff, head of innovation at the global out-of-home firm Kinetic. (Subscribers of cable or telco data plans are able to get 20 or 30 megabit speeds at best, he notes.)

The LinkNYC locations are, in fact, the only places in North America where a consumer can get gigabit-speed Internet service, says Nick Cardillicchio, strategic account manager at Civiq Smartscapes, designer and manufacturer of New York’s kiosks. On a cold, wet afternoon this month, Cardillicchio provided a tour up Manhattan’s Third Avenue, north of 14th Street, where the first kiosks, known as Links, have been installed. All told, 16 Links are up and running, as part of LinkNYC’s initial test.

Each of the kiosks looks almost like a giant smartphone on an imposing, silver pedestal whose customized surface makes it difficult for street artists to add their own personal touch. Perhaps it’s little surprise, then, that Civiq is a spinoff of a company called Comark that makes tech devices for the military. “We manufacture equipment that’s meant to survive in battle zones,” as Brad Gleeson, chief commercial officer of Civiq, puts it.

Cardillicchio describes the inside of the kiosks: “There are multiple single-board computers in the link. Each major subassembly has its own dedicated computer so we can independently track [a kiosk’s functions], providing the most reliable health reporting and monitoring capabilities and ensuring the greatest uptime.”

As for the exterior, each Link prominently features a 55-inch diagonal digital screen on each side. Ads for Poland Spring, MillerCoors, Pager and Citibank are currently in rotation. The kiosks will eventually feature smaller tablet screens that can be used to place voice or video calls free of charge anywhere in the U.S. Via the Links, consumers can also access information about the city, including maps and directions and things to do, as well as emergency information. The Links also act as charging stations for mobile devices.

Meanwhile, the star attraction of LinkNYC—the speedy, free Wi-Fi service—is accessible within at least a 150-foot radius of each location, though it can be accessible up to 400 feet. In other words, a New Yorker could kiss his or her ISP and data plan goodbye—if, that is, they live really nearby and aren’t so concerned about security issues. (It is much too early to assess the smart city’s impact on ISPs like Time Warner Cable, Verizon and Comcast—but at a time when cord-cutting is an urgent concern, the prospect of “free Internet for all” cannot come as a comfort.)

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