How Fast Will LinkNYC’s Free Wi-Fi Hot Spots Be?

If you have an up-to-date mobile device, the wifi will probably beat your home or office, but it won't be as fast as advertised

A rendering of a LinkNYC kiosk in the Bronx. (Image: LinkNYC)
A rendering of a LinkNYC kiosk in the Bronx. (Image: LinkNYC)

LinkNYC is going to offer Gigabit Wi-Fi to New Yorkers, sort of. The Wi-Fi hotspots will replace the real estate currently held by pay phones at more than 10,000 spots around the city, as the Observer previously reported.

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The 10 foot tall kiosks will be only 11 inches thick and carry 55” digital screens on each side, according to staff from Intersection who presented at today’s NYC Media Lab Summit at NYU’s Skirball Center. According to the LinkNYC website, the first kiosks should become operational by the end of the year.

“This free public Wi-Fi network is an important step in Mayor de Blasio’s pledge to bridge the digital divide,” Jen Hensley, a spokesperson for Intersection, said during her presentation.

Here are some key points about LinkNYC:

  • Advertising pays for it. The team didn’t go into a lot of detail about how it will work, but the 55” screens will be available as advertising space, powered digitally. As Wi-Fi hotspots, the kiosks will be gathering information about New Yorkers and their visitors as they use the Wi-Fi the system pumps out. Fortunately, according to the team, you don’t need to give the system much information to sign up—only your name and your email. It will undoubtedly be logging other data that your device volunteers and they will use that information to make decisions about what ads to show where. Nothing is ever truly free.
  • It has a 150’ foot range. If you’re that close to a kiosk, you should be able to use its free Wi-Fi. Dave Etherington, the chief of strategy for Intersection, said that in practice it can often reach 400 feet. If you want to try to visualize how much of the city will be covered, the blog I Quant NY gave it a shot.
  • Devices will get more like 40 Mb of throughput at best. No one is getting 1 GB of throughput on their device, as ZDNet explained, even though it is, technically, pumping out that much bandwidth. That said, if you have a device with an 802.11ac modem on board, you can get up to 40 MB, which is still pretty great. It’s probably better than the ethernet connection at your office. On the other hand, if you have a device with an older modem, it will still work, but it won’t be any faster than what you get from your regular modem (that’s your device’s limits, not the kiosk’s fault). Reasonably affordable 10 GB broadband has started arriving in New York City, for commercial customers.
  • Dead phone? Make calls for free from the kiosks. Of course, that assumes you know the person’s phone number.
  • Dead phone? It has two fast USB chargers. Intersection staff said you should be able to get a 10 percent charge in about a minute. That sounds convenient.  
  • Open data. As we all know, advertisers love data, and these will be 10,000 nodes gathering supposedly anonymized data about the Wi-Fi users and, one would guess, passersby as well (check out this post about what your phone volunteers and this one about how easy it is to identify people online). That said, Mr. Etherington said that the data collected would also be made open.
  • No ads on your device. While the system will contribute to the Times Squareification of all of New York City by putting up far more LED screens all over the place, what most people will probably use the system for is access to Wi-Fi on their own mobiles and laptops. Thankfully, the company will not be pushing ads to you there.

Intersection is a new company formed from the merger of two previous organizations, Titan and Control group, according to a press release from earlier this month. Google-backed Sidewalk Labs, whose formation the Observer previously reported on, invested in the merger. Its press release describes Intersection as “a Sidewalk Labs company.”

How Fast Will LinkNYC’s Free Wi-Fi Hot Spots Be?