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New York City Releases WiFi Payphone RFP Amidst Reports of New Digital Leadership

BY Miranda Neubauer | Thursday, May 1 2014

New York City envisions more of these in the future. (DoITT Tumblr)

New York City's Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications on Thursday officially issued a Request for Proposals with the goal of transforming the city's payphone inventory into what would become one of the largest Wi-Fi networks in the country by replacing and expanding the current payphones with new installations that offer WiFi service.

As techPresident previously reported, the city had already begun a pilot program with WiFi through payphones under the Bloomberg administration in July 2012, and last year organized a Reinvent Payphones design challenge.

According to the city press release, the city drew on those more than 125 submissions and public input to draft an RFP that could encompass a wide range of proposals. While the proposals must include free 24/7 WiFi service with an 85-foot minimum radius and phone service with the ability to make free 911 and 311 calls, other suggested services include cell phone charging stations, environmental sensors, the use of independent power sources such as solar power and interactive touch screens.

Funding for the new structures would primarily come from digital advertising, according to the press release. The city is set to earn a minimum of $17.5 million in guaranteed annual revenue from the franchise, which is estimated to have a total value of over $200 million, encompassing 10,000 of the new structures, beyond the existing over 7,000 payphones, equitably distributed over the five boroughs within four years.

In its evaluation, the city will consider the functional efficiency, aesthetics, security, durability, adaptability to varied city environments and disability accommodation of the proposals, which are due June 30, with the aim of signing a contract by the end of 2014.

"By using a historic part of New York’s street fabric, we can significantly enhance public availability of increasingly-vital broadband access, invite new and innovative digital services, and increase revenue to the city—all at absolutely no cost to taxpayers," Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement.

“Building on DoITT’s digital inclusion efforts, this RFP represents an opportunity to innovate the existing payphone network to offer an unprecedented level of connectivity to all New Yorkers, including free citywide wireless access," acting DoITT Commissioner Evan Hines added in the statement.

"We didn’t want to tell people, ‘This is what the new device looks like.' We wanted to give them the flexibility to put forward ideas that covered the entire spectrum," de Blasio advisor Jeff Merritt told the New York Times, which first reported on the RFP and detailed how the new franchise would replace the current contracts with three large payphone operators and several smaller ones.

Thursday's announcement comes amid reports that the de Blasio administration is preparing to make a high-level tech appointment to his administration. Crain's New York Business reported Wednesday that the new position would be situated close to the mayor within City Hall, going beyond the role of former Chief Digital Officer Rachel Haot, who was based out of the Mayor's Office of Media and Entertainment. "How important the tech sector is to us is reflected in the fact that all of the key [tech-related] activities and leadership are being moved directly into the mayor's office," Peter Ragone, senior advisor for strategic planning, told Crain's.

techPresident reported last week that members of the civic hacker community urged the de Blasio administration to fill several tech leadership vacancies, including the at DoITT, at a City Council hearing.

At a recent press conference with State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli on a report examining New York's tech industry, de Blasio said he would be making new tech community proposals during Internet Week, where he will be keynote speaker.

Also Wednesday, the New York Observer reported on how Jessica Singleton, former digital director for the de Blasio campaign, has been overseeing the city's more coordinated social media effort, with 75 city social media managers now also operating under the City Hall supervision of Ragone, rather than the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment.

In Facebook comments on that article, some members of the betaNYC community, New York City's Code For America brigade, expressed some frustration with the article, questioning the emphasis on projects begun under Bloomberg and social media engagement rather than a focus on open data and posting accurate city official contact information.

Earlier this week, New York City's Department of Transportation launched an interactive map using Open Plans' Shareabouts platform allowing New Yorkers to point out dangerous traffic sites as part of de Blasio's Vision Zero initiative to eliminate traffic fatalities, and the NYPD testified at a hearing that it planned to post more accessible crash data shortly. On Thursday, New York City's Office of Emergency Management sent out a message calling on New Yorkers to report any damage from a rainstorm Wednesday to 311, explaining that "this data will be collected, mapped, and used to assess the damage in areas affected by the April 30 rainstorm and subsequent flooding."

Next week, the City Council will hold a hearing on rules reform legislation that would, among many other requirements, mandate that legislative and discretionary funding data be available to the public in a machine readable format, and call on the City Council Speaker to develop a public technology plan for public access to City Council materials and meetings.

And New York City is not the only major city looking for new tech leadership. A search is also underway for a Chief Digital Officer in Boston, where Mayor Martin Walsh also recently unveiled the city's "Wicked Free Wifi," a public network launched with coverage over a 1.5 square mile area in the neighborhood of Grove Hall, with plans to expand the network to all 20 commercial districts that are part of the city's Main Street neighborhoods program. The Boston Globe reported that the neighborhood was selected as a launch site because it has a high concentration of low-income families who may not be able to afford high-speed broadband service.