Free Wi-Fi pay phone station at 58th Street and Broadway...

Free Wi-Fi pay phone station at 58th Street and Broadway Pedestrian Plaza (Marc Beja) Credit: Free Wi-Fi pay phone station at 58th Street and Broadway Pedestrian Plaza (Marc Beja)

The city is trying to make pay phones useful again.

Wi-Fi antennas have been affixed to the top of 10 city pay phones, giving New Yorkers free, 24-hour wireless Internet service, officials announced Wednesday morning in midtown.

The first 10 hot spots are running at pay phones near pedestrian plazas and on busy street corners in Manhattan, with two in Brooklyn and one in Queens. Others are expected to be installed in the Bronx and Staten Island by the end of the year, officials said. They provide fairly quick and unlimited ad-free service up to 200 feet away from the phones.

"What we aim to get to is a fully-connected city," Rachel Sterne, the city's chief digital officer said Wednesday at a pedestrian plaza at 58th Street and Broadway, where one of the first pay phone hot spots has been installed. "Being able to access the Internet is the basis of that."

The free wireless Internet service is part of the city's effort to come up with a helpful use for its more than 12,000 pay phones and to get more New Yorkers broadband access, officials said. Free Wi-Fi is available at all public library branches and 40 parks, and the city hopes high-tech pay phone kiosks will be installed later this year that would provide other services in addition to making calls.

"It is not trying to replace the pay phone," said Rahul Merchant, the city's chief innovation and information officer. "It is 'What else would you like to see?'" One example he offered was the ability for people to get directions from the kiosks.

Van Wagner, one of the companies that has a contract with the city to operate pay phones, said it is picking up the $2,000 tab to install the Wi-Fi. The company is hoping to get its partnership with the city extended past its October 2014 end date so it can expand its reach.

"Within 12 months, we could have the city blanketed with Wi-Fi," said Peter Izzo, the company's senior operations executive. "We can put a really seamless mesh up over the city."

Izzo said that during a two-month trial of the Internet service at the Broadway pedestrian plaza, users have logged about 24,000 minutes of Internet usage monthly.

New Yorkers had mixed reactions about the likelihood they'll use the service.

"If I need to make that connection to check my email for work or any other purpose, it's great to know that in this part of the city, I will be able to do that," said Margaret Mockbee, 35, of Gramercy Park.

Meghan Cleary of Morningside Heights, who was sitting in the pedestrian plaza on Broadway that has free Wi-Fi, said she has never had been in a situation where she wasn't able to get free internet access.

"There are so many Starbucks. If you really need that Wi-fi. you'll kind of no where to go," said Cleary, 23, who was skeptical that people would feel comfortable stopping to use the service in the middle of the street. "There's kind of a lot going on -- cabs, bikes -- so it's not exactly the most accessible place for people to sit down and open their laptop or e-reader."

(With Ariam Frezghi)


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