In the classic “2001: A Space Odyssey,” proto-humans take a marked evolutionary step when they wake up to find a giant, black monolith in their midst. It’s not a stretch to imagine similar scenes taking place in New York, as two 10-foot WiFi kiosks sprung up on 3rd Avenue over the holidays. The imposing black kiosks, which deliver up to a gigabyte of free WiFi to anyone within 100 yards, also feature a built-in tablet for video calling and multiple phone charging outlets. Over 4500 monoliths are slated for installation in the next four years; the system, called LinkNYC, is intended to replace an outmoded phone booth network.
Companies focusing on developing countries might take notice. Similar initiatives have been around for a few years, but the LinkNYC system has some heavyweight backers, including Google and Qualcomm, and a business model that may be highly replicable in emerging-market cities. “Free” connectivity is actually subsidized by giant digital displays on the side of the kiosks, which will bring an estimated $500 million in 12 years (or an average of $42 million/year). It’s unclear how much will be shared with the city, but anything north of $17 million a year will exceed income from phone booth ads.
This kind of benefit, even on a smaller scale, will get the attention of municipal authorities from Cape Town to Jakarta, who can then help lower the legal and infrastructural hurdles to system installation. The advertising capability should also attract a wide range of potential partners – operators, Internet service providers, mobile money companies, handset makers, online platforms, retailers, and many others. Such an advertising medium is particularly attractive because it can be managed remotely and precisely localized based on user activity. It also caters to relatively affluent, connected smartphone owners. The giant black monoliths in “A Space Odyssey” appeared periodically during the course of human history, each time mankind was ready for a transcendent experience. What will happen when they appear on every street corner in thousands of cities around the world?