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NYC to Set Up Real-Time Monitoring for Service Availability of Public Wi-Fi and Phone Call Kiosks

New York City's more than 1,500 LinkNYC kiosks, which offer free public telephone calls and Wi-Fi, will get live, by-the-hour monitoring via the Internet of Things later this spring.

New York City, which is already bridging the gap for many thousands of households without broadband access, will ramp up support for its free public telephones and Wi-Fi by using technology to answer a simple question that has likely puzzled residents since the days of pay phones: Which ones work?

The city’s LinkNYC initiative provides the ability to make free calls, charge a cellphone or smartphone, and connect to free Wi-Fi at more than 1,500 kiosks in all five boroughs. Now, with an Internet of Thing-like paradigm, it will set up a program to monitor in real time which ones aren't working.

LinkNYC has good systemwide Wi-Fi and tablet service availability, at 99.8 percent and more than 95 percent uptime, respectively. But Council Member Ben Kallos, a software developer who championed then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s “Reinvent Payphones” initiative in 2013, noticed some kiosks in his district were partially out of order, and offered Wi-Fi but not free calls.

During a conversation with interns in November as they attempted to test the Wi-Fi, Kallos told Government Technology, the idea struck him of using existing Internet protocols (IPs) such as Ping, to probe kiosk service outages in real time instead of waiting for regular, but less frequent physical inspections.

Kallos suggested the city’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) use IPs to improve the tracking of the free call availability, the city said in a news release.

DoITT partnered with the New York City Council Technology Committee, chaired by Peter Koo, and with Kallos to develop a real-time monitoring system based on newly available hourly Link service information from CityBridge, the franchisee behind LinkNYC.

The system will intake the information into a new data set that will be available to the public in May on NYC OpenData, the city’s open data portal, the city said.

"This real-time, up-to-the-hour monitoring will ensure residents are able to find free phones that are working whenever they need one," the city said in a statement.

The City Council’s Committee on Technology will also hear about the project in an update on LinkNYC at 1 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time on April 18.

“That was the genesis, going from this very 19th-century, bureaucratic format to the Internet of Things, being able to use the Internet of Things to do an audit in real time,” said Kallos, who emphasized that he, like so many millions of residents, relies on LinkNYC kiosks to recharge his cellphone on the way home at night, and to supplant his existing data plan.

The council member’s support of the issue has included advocating in 2014 for upgrading phone booths. During his re-election campaign, his campaign office was close enough to a LinkNYC kiosk to make use of its free Wi-Fi, Kallos said.

“I think there’s an importance about custodianship for existing products. When I care about something, I don’t stop caring about it when it happens. I still want it to succeed,” Kallos said, noting that as of 2015 according the U.S. Census, more than 730,000 households in New York — including one-quarter of households in Brooklyn and one-third of those in the Bronx — did not have broadband.

“Having free Wi-Fi matters. LinkNYC works,” he added.

Other New York City officials agreed. Samir Saini, DoITT commissioner, praised Kallos for his dedication and pointed to LinkNYC’s usage by more than 3.7 million people already as proof that modern monitoring is essential.

“This shows how important the program has become in a relatively short time, and why it’s paramount that we make sure Links are operating at an optimal level. In a matter of weeks, New Yorkers are going to be able to see that for themselves when we publish a new open data set showing real-time status of all the functions of each kiosk,” Saini said in a statement.

Koo, the Technology Committee chairman, highlighted the "endless potential" for LinkNYC kiosks in a statement.

"A robust monitoring and maintenance program will ensure this innovative new program lives up to its potential," he said, thanking Kallos, LinkNYC and DoITT.

Ruth Fasoldt, LinkNYC’s director of external affairs, said in a statement it is “proud to offer a high level of service that millions of New Yorkers rely on."

“We are happy to work with DoITT and Council Member Kallos, in providing additional data for the City's open data portal so New Yorkers can see the status of Links throughout the city,” Fasoldt said.

Theo Douglas is assistant managing editor for Industry Insider — California, and before that was a staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes covering municipal, county and state governments, business and breaking news. He has a Bachelor's degree in Newspaper Journalism and a Master's in History, both from California State University, Long Beach.