Meet Intersection, the Alphabet-funded startup that wants to blanket your city in superfast, free WiFi

For a few months now, New Yorkers lucky enough to be in specific parts of the city have enjoyed superfast, free WiFi.

But the hotspots are spreading fast, and could soon migrate to other cities.

That’s the audacious plan of Intersection, the company that administers Link NYC.

Intersection CEO Al Kelly says Link NYC — named after the monolith-like devices now dotting Manhattan streets — are signing up 15,000 new users per week, and there have been over 2 million individual sessions since the first four Links were turned on in January.

And that’s with only a limited number of Links installed on city streets so far. The rate of usage is “quite frankly mind boggling given how we’re so early — we have 200 units versus 7,500 we want to deploy,” Kelly said.

By the end of the year, Intersection will have nearly 500 Links installed in all five city boroughs. The first Links go up in the Bronx in a couple of weeks. “Obviously as we scale up is when this gets much more exciting than it is today,” Kelly said.

Eventually, the idea is that someone could walk up or down a street and stay connected to the public Wi-Fi network the entire time. For some New Yorkers, Links could be their main broadband internet connection, Kelly says. Soon, the technology could spread to other cities.

Link has a long way to go to get to that point, but they have got the support of a very powerful backer: Alphabet, the nearly $500 billion parent company of Google.

Friends in high places

When walking through the door at Intersection’s Midtown offices, you’re greeted by a big sign saying “Footpath Labs.”

That’s so people know there are actually two companies in the office, the Intersection receptionist tells me.

When Google restructured itself into Alphabet last summer, it also created Footpath Labs, an independent subsidiary led by CEO Dan Doctoroff dedicated to urban technology. One of Footpath’s first moves was to fund Titan Outdoor, a private advertising company, and Control Group, a technology company, and help merge the two into Intersection.

The reason they were chosen was because the two companies had formed a coalition and won the New York City contract to put Links in the city. When you visit Intersection’s website, the top image is a photo of a Link on the street.

One advantage to Links is that they should be inexpensive or free to install thanks to the two digital advertising spaces on both sides that mean that the system should eventually pay for itself. In fact, New York expects to pull revenue from the Links, and isn’t contributing any taxpayer money to the project.

Obviously, Footpath Labs has big plans for its investment in Intersection. One possibility is that Intersection could take its design for municipal Wi-Fi hotspots and enter into contracts with other cities, possibly as soon as later this year.

One benefit to other cities is that Links should be inexpensive or free to install thanks to the two digital advertising spaces on both sides that mean that the system should eventually pay for itself. In fact, New York expects to pull revenue from the Links, and isn’t contributing any taxpayer money to the project.

“We are currently in talks with some other cities,” Kelly said. “No timeline. But I think in the fourth quarter or 2017 likely we’ll let you hear about other opportunities.”

In fact, Footpath Labs will install more than 100 Links in the city that wins the U.S. Department of Transportation Smart City Challenge, expected to be announced in June.

Footpath Labs doesn’t own Intersection, but it’s the second biggest investor in the company, and Doctoroff is the chairman of the board. Intersection is privately held, but before Titan Outdoor entered into the merger, it was majority owned by private equity firm Welsh, Carson, Anderson & Stowe. “The biggest investor of this company is the management of the company,” Kelly says.

But if Footpath Labs or Doctoroff ever decides to build a new smart city from scratch, which he’s called a “great idea,” don’t be surprised if there are Links dotting the landscape.

A startup within a startup

The merger between Titan Outdoor and Control Group isn’t completely finished, yet. Currently, Intersection keeps both old offices, but they’re moving into a single office at Hudson Yards on Manhattan’s west side soon. (Footpath Labs is tagging along too.)

But Kelly is quick to point out that Link is actually a small proportion of what Intersection does. After all, the Link initiative will “take some time before it fully pays back,” and in the meantime, it still has a business and existing Titan contracts selling advertising around transit systems like those found in Chicago, Philadelphia, Seattle, Boston, and San Francisco.

“Link is, in essence, a startup initiative inside of an established company,” Kelly said.

Kelly, who was president of American Express, is managing these partnerships with public transit agencies as they move from old-style posters to screens that can display digital advertising that can be changed and programmed remotely. But it will take a while to fully transition into a company that sells technology to its customers and partners.

And Footpath Labs will certainly support that transition. “Footpath Labs is like a cousin. I don’t think it’s like a brother or a sister yet. It might evolve into that,” Kelly said.

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