Google's startup that wants to improve cities will start by bringing free Wi-fi to NYC

Larry Page GoogleAPGoogle CEO Larry Page

Earlier this month, Google unveiled a plan to help improve cities througha new, independent startup called Footpath Labs, run by former Bloomberg CEO Dan Doctoroff.

Today Footpath revealed its first move: The acquisition of two companies that are working to bring free, public Wi-fi to NYC.

Control Group and Titan Outdoor were both behind an effort called LinkNYC, which aims to put Wi-fi and digital advertising screens in thousands of pay phone booths across the city. The Wi-fi hotspots will also offer charging stations for cell phones and free calls to anywhere in the US.

As part of the acquisition, the two companies merged to form a new startup called Intersection.

Technically, Footpath Labs says it is just the lead investor of a “consortium of investors” that bought Intersection.

“By bringing these two industry leaders together, Intersection will help make cities connected places where you can walk down any street and access free ultra high-speed Wi-Fi, find transit and wayfinding information, access information about city services — the possibilities are endless,” Doctoroff says in a company press release.

Footpath’s overall ambitions are to build products and platforms to tackle big-picture issues like cost of living, efficient transportation, and energy use for city-dwellers around the world. Although Intersection is starting in New York City, it will likely use what it learns to extend the system to cities around the world.

This isn’t completely surprising: Earlier this month, a
reader tipped us off about a Reuters article from before Footpath Labs launched, that cited sources who said that Doctoroff had placed a bid to buy Titan Outdoors.

Titan actually came under fire in October after BuzzFeed reported that its efforts to revamp pay phones included surreptitiously inserting beacons into them. Beacons push advertisements to people’s cell phones when they walk by, but they can also be used to track users’ locations. New York City ultimately forced Titan to remove the beacons following BuzzFeed’s report.

Turning 10,000 obsolete pay phone booths into hubs of digital information and communication which could potentially direct users to services like Maps or Search certainly seems attractive for Google.

Plus, by acquiring Titan, Footpath Labs will get a share of the ad revenue it was going to make from the converted-payphones. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has said that LinkNYC could bring the city $US500 million in ad revenue over the next 12 years. Footpath Labs declined to disclose to Bloomberg what share of revenue it will receive.

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