Old payphone booths in NYC aren't just for trash and graffiti anymore. The City of New York said Thursday it is seeking manufacturers to turn those thousands of metal sidewalk husks into portals that will blanket the five boroughs with free Internet access.

The new touchscreen payphones will resemble giant smartphones, and Mayor Bill de Blasio says they will broadcast Wi-Fi to New Yorkers at “absolutely no cost to taxpayers.” If completed, the project would be the largest municipal Wi-Fi system in the world.

“For years, the question was what to do with payphones, and now we have an answer,” de Blasio said in a statement. “By using a historic part of New York’s street fabric, we can significantly enhance public availability of increasingly vital broadband access.”

The city selected the new payphones, to be called NYFi, last year following a design competition, and says the project will be funded by sales of digital billboard ads. The mayor’s office says the company it selects to build them will have to be ready to deploy by 2018.

NYFI residential NYC says NYFi portals will create $17.5 million in revenue for the city by June 2026. Photo: nyc.gov

The City of New York is looking for manufacturers to build up to 10,000 of the NYFi access points around the city, to replace 7,300 payphones that currently dot the city’s sidewalks. It says the new payphones will offer broadband Internet in addition to free 911 and 311 calls and access to information about the city’s goods and services. The money charged for phone calls and other services from NYFi portals will create $17.5 million in revenue for the city by June 2026, it says.

New York is putting the finishing touches on the nation’s largest outdoor Wi-Fi network in Harlem, which covers 80,000 residents, and has hotspots at 36 different subway stations. The city has also converted a few dozen phone booths to provide Wi-Fi since 2012 in Queens, Manhattan and Brooklyn.

It's not the first to offer municipal Wi-Fi. Helsinki, Finland, offers it near public buildings and in select civic squares, trams and buses; and Hong Kong has several different networks open to the public. Separate plans to offer free public Wi-Fi in San Francisco, Houston and Chicago failed in 2007.

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