London and New York are replacing outdated phone booths with Wi-Fi kiosks that have embedded computing tablets, USB charging ports, keypads for making phone calls, and large screens that display relevant information to passersby. New York started installing its “LinkNYC” kiosks in 2016, currently has more than 900 activated across all five boroughs and plans to increase that number to 7,500. The U.K. just started erecting its “InLinkUK” kiosks in London and intends to deploy up to 1,000 across the country.
Today, people use the Links primarily to charge their smartphones, take advantage of the fast Wi-Fi, make Internet (VoIP) calls, and search for information about the weather and local restaurants. All these services are free to use, in part because the 10-foot-tall kiosks display ads that generate funds the cities share with the companies that designed and run the technology. These companies, which include Qualcomm and the telecom giant BT, pay for the Links’ installation and maintenance costs. They have estimated that the city of New York will earn more than half a billion dollars in revenue over 12 years from the LinkNYC partnership.
Intersection, the company that manages the Link projects in London and New York, is considering upgrading them to support everything from augmented reality to autonomous vehicles. “Phase One was about making sure we’re offering robust services to people,” says Intersection’s chief innovation officer, Colin O’Donnell. “Now we’re figuring out how we can leverage all the different data sets we have access to and make [this technology] as dynamic and responsive as it can be.”
Intersection’s vision for the future may also suggest ways that Google parent Alphabet hopes to shape cities through its “urban innovation” subsidiary, Sidewalk Labs. Sidewalk Labs is an investor in Intersection, its CEO is the chairman of Intersection’s board of directors, and the companies share the same Manhattan office.
LinkNYC is run by Intersection, Qualcomm, and CIVIQ Smartscapes. Sidewalk Labs is an investor in just one of those companies, Intersection.
Links could be outfitted with environmental sensors. Intersection worked with Argonne National Laboratory to develop sensors that detect about 30 different pollutants and could negotiate with its city partners to add them to the kiosks.