The function of government is to protect residents, provide for their health and well-being, and deliver public goods. Increasingly, public goods include Internet access. In order to compete in a 21st century economy, government must ensure residents and business have access to information and each other at all times, anywhere in the world. Delivering Internet to residents expands government’s business model; the digital technology that the Internet enables introduces significant challenges and opportunities for government’s operating model.
In New York City, Mayor de Blasio classifies high-speed, affordable access to the Internet as an essential service. Yet the City of New York is ill-equipped to dig up its own streets and install fiber optic cable to connect residents. In order to provide access to all New Yorkers, the City has adapted a 20th century operating model for the 21st century.
Historically, franchise agreements between the City and private sector partners facilitate installation and maintenance of telecommunications infrastructure. By enabling private sector partners to dig up city streets and charge residents for services, the City retains power to negotiate the best deal for taxpayers and delegates a legal obligation to provide reliable service to residents.
In October 2014, the City of New York’s franchise agreement to provide a citywide network of payphones expired. Anticipating the franchise’s expiration (and payphones’ obsolescence), City Hall asked residents: How would you reinvent payphones? Through public comments, residents agreed that these relics of our streetscape should become 21st century communication devices. The City used a “Call for Innovations” model  to solicit detailed approaches to leverage the wired corridors that powered payphones of the past to develop and install 21st century communications portals.
An industrial design firm called Control Group, advertising vendor Titan, structural engineering and manufacturing firm CIVIQ Smartscapes, and telecommunications firm Qualcomm joined forces to take on the challenge. Under the new name “CityBridge,” this consortium developed what are now known as Links: gigabit speed WiFi stations with touch-screen connections to government services and elsewhere on the web (residents can make old-fashioned phone calls, too). Like their predecessor, these modern day “payphones” earn revenue from advertising displays on the sides of the tower. Unlike their predecessor, Links are free to users. When completed, LinkNYC will create the largest and fastest public wireless network anywhere in the world, at no cost to tax payers.
At least not monetarily.
CityBridge describes LinkNYC’s “groundbreaking digital OOH advertising network” as an opportunity for brands to use a “context-aware platform to reach New Yorkers and visitors,” causing concern among civil liberties and privacy groups. In a letter to Mayor de Blasio’s Chief Counsel Maya Wiley, the New York Civil Liberties Union claimed that LinkNYC created “a class of residents who otherwise cannot afford the Internet and must pay for their access with their right to privacy.”
Finally, LinkNYC’s business model relies on revenue from advertising. Links in high-traffic areas such as Times Square generate more advertising revenue than a neighborhood on Staten Island, given their relative exposures to potential customers. Additionally, the Internet speed of each tower is tied directly to the number of potential users at any given time. As a result, the denser the area, faster the Internet. This led elected officials and the press to perceive City Hall as discriminating against neighborhoods with fewer tourists and pedestrians. Many of these neighborhoods align with neighborhoods that are underserved already.
While imperfect, LinkNYC’s present a significant operating opportunity for governments to fulfill their new business responsibility to provide affordable and high-speed Internet connectivity to residents. The digital transformation of our economy has led to new challenges for data collection and measures of equity — and to be sure these issues are far from unresolved. For many, LinkNYC demonstrates the power of digital technology to improve government’s operating model efficiency. For others, this free public good comes with a hefty price tag: privacy.
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