The tablets built into New York streets are getting a major software update

New York’s municipal Wi-Fi network only launched in January of this year, but 10 months later, it already seems like a part of the cityscape, despite one high-profile setback.

Over 600,000 people have signed up to use the Wi-Fi beacons, called Links, says Dan Doctoroff, CEO of Footpath Labs, and 4,000 new users are signing up per day.

Footpath Labs is a subsidiary of Alphabet, the Google-led conglomerate. It owns a substantial stake in Intersection, a company formed in part to expand the Link network. The two companies share an office in Hudson Yards, Manhattan.

As of now, there are 367 of the connected monoliths installed on New York city streets, but the rate of growth should accelerate as more are installed and turned on, according to Intersection and Footpath Labs, the two companies responsible for the network.

“Digging trenches is not easy, getting permits from government is never easy,” Footpath Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff told Business Insider. “What’s really great is that the service Link provides people desperately need and want.”

And before the end of the year, the Android tablets built into the kiosks will get a major software update, complete with a new interface designed specifically for the kiosks.

Living room on the streets

LinkNYCKif Leswing/Business InsiderThe computer inside a Link wi-fi hotspot, on display at Footpath Labs’ headquarters on the west side of Manhattan.

To many New Yorkers, the Link network is associated with quality-of-life issues that eventually forced Intersection, the company overseeing the network, to turn off the built-in web browser on the tablets.

“The Wi-Fi kiosks in New York … have also attracted people who linger for hours, sometimes drinking and doing drugs and, at times, boldly watching pornography on the footpaths,” the New York Times reported in September.

It was never about the porn, says Colin O’Donnell, CTO of Intersection. It just made for good headlines. In fact, the Android tablets built into the Links included comprehensive adult content filters. “No requests to adult sites were being served,” O’Donnell says.

The issue was instead that there were people who found the built-in tablets on the Links to be so useful that they would pull up a chair and sit in front of them for hours.

That’s why Intersection turned off the web browser, O’Donnell says. Since the browser in the built-in tablet was turned off, Intersection has actually seen an increase in the number of people using the built-in tablets, but a decrease in the average time people are using them. Intersection saw a 96% drop in complaints about long-term browsing sessions after the tweak was made.

“We never envisioned that browser to be used for long-term use. It was always designed to be transactional and to be honest it’s not fair when people hog the use of it, and so, we saw abuses of that, and we had to stop it,”

Intersection is planning to push out an update before the end of the year that redesigns the tablet interface, adding back some level of internet access. “It’s going to be more widgets or card-based,” O’Donnell says. “The next iteration will be more of a mix of applications and content.”

O’Donnell says that the new interface is going to be “Metro Style or Material Design,” referring to the design language that Microsoft and Google have settled on. “It’s not unfettered access to the internet, but it respects people’s need for information,” O’Donnell says.

An uncovered need

LinkNYCLinkNYCA map of Links in NYC

Shortly after Intersection announced that it was making changes to address the hogging issue, people around the city argued that it revealed that the Google-backed project was “never about serving the public in the first place.”

Not so, says O’Donnell. The fact that people were monopolizing certain links “uncovered a latent need for internet access for homeless people” and other vulnerable communities.

“We believe having access to broadband in today’s society is really no different than having access to water and electricity,” Doctoroff said. “Our mission, at the end of the day, is to give people access to fast connectivity, and on that measure thus far, we are doing extraordinarily well.”

Municipal Wi-Fi networks using Link technology should start spreading to other cities next year, says Intersection.

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