New York City announced plans Monday to reconfigure all of the city’s decrepit payphones into WiFi hot spots starting in 2015, a move that reinforces President Obama’s net neutrality proposal: That internet access is a basic right, not a privilege.
The LinkNYC plan replaces the city’s payphones with up to 10,000 standalone towers that offer passersby free WiFi and nationwide calling, and a charging station. The conversion plan has not been approved by the city’s Franchise and Concession Review Committee, a city regulator that ensures city plans comply with laws and regulations.
If approved, City Bridge and a team of New York-based companies, including the city’s biggest payphone operator Titan, will start the digital migration next year.
Twenty percent of New Yorkers don’t have high-speed internet access at home and 11 percent don’t have a computer, according to 2013 Census data. Nationwide, one in four U.S. households don’t have a paid internet subscription, and another 16 percent don’t have Internet access at home, work or school, or on mobile devices, according to Census data. And those Americans without access are overwhelmingly minorities and seniors.
Minorities disproportionately use mobile devices as a primary means to access the Internet. Only 62 percent of African Americans have a broadband Internet connection at home, compared to 87 percent of white households, Pew found. But while only half of African-Americans and Hispanics own smartphones, they’re significantly more likely to use the devices to access the Internet over their white counterparts.
The belief that internet access should be treated as a public necessity has gained traction as the heated debate surrounding net neutrality continues. Last week, Obama revealed his pro-net neutrality plan, which would ban internet providers from blocking or throttling customers’ access. Obama asked the FCC to reclassify the internet as a public utility to acknowledge that ISP access is “necessary to ensure the network works for everyone — not just one or two companies.”
Broadband companies have strongly opposed net neutrality and the government’s attempt to regulate the internet. Both Comcast and AT&T have threatened to sue the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) if the agency moves to treat the internet as a utility, subjecting internet providers to much stricter rules. After a judge tossed out the original net neutrality rules, providers have been lobbying against any attempt to reinstate them, while also trying to win customers hearts.
Internet providers have also balked at Obama’s proposals, lobbying for the FCC to inject language that gives companies freedom to charge sites and services for premium access speeds. AT&T recently announced it would cease plans to upgrade its infrastructure that would hasten internet speeds in dozens of cities until the FCC made its ruling.
But New York’s citywide WiFi plan also raises privacy concerns. Buzzfeed reported in October that Titan, which also backs LinkNYC, planted radio transmitters or beacons in its payphone ads throughout Manhattan. Those beacons emit signals that can be picked up by smartphones and used to track people’s movements, typically by alerting customers of sales in nearby stores.