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Posted & filed under NYC Payphones.

The so-called “payphone of the future” has come and gone a number of times since the mid-1990s. AT&T’s Public Phone 2000 could be found at most major airports, along with garishly ugly contraptions such as the Atcom/Info Cyberbooth and TouchNet Internet Business Centers.

Telco companies large and small produced a wide range of these now forgotten thingumabobs which offered pay-as-you-go Internet, telephone and fax services.

Those products targeted business travelers. It was TCC Teleplex’s Internet Kiosk (better known as the “Internet Payphone”) that brought such devices to New York’s streets. The Internet Payphone in New York premiered in 2002, blithely inhabiting our sidewalks in dozens of locations for about 8 years.

In 2010 TCC Teleplex announced it would replace its Internet Payphones with solar-powered “green” models. That never happened, and the under-appreciated innovation of TCC Teleplex’s Internet Payphone disappeared.

Fast forward to 2014 and the payphone of the future is back. On November 17th New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced plans to replace the city’s stable of outdoor public telephones with “Links” — multipurpose public kiosks which would offer free Wi-Fi, touchscreen information services, cell phone charging stations, and, surprisingly, the ability to make phone calls.

Payphones would not entirely disappear from New York under this plan, which targets thousands of outdoor payphones lining the city’s sidewalks and curbs. Phones located in subway stations, airports, bus terminals, theaters, and other venues are not in the cross hairs of this potential payphone bloodbath, though market factors could force them out of business anyway. How can pay-as-you-go telephones survive when thousands of devices offering exactly the same service for free abound?

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For better or worse I am happy to see that the Payphone Project’s call for payphones to be free phones has inched one step closer to reality.

The LinkNYC plan — which requires approval by New York’s Franchise and Concession Review Committee (FCRC) — is put forward by CityBridge, a consortium of companies headed by Titan, the display advertising company that presently owns a majority of the city’s outdoor payphones.

This plan to essentially erase traditional coin-fed phones from city streets has New York’s payphone community (what’s left of it, that is) asking a lot of questions, chief among them simply “Why choose Titan?” It is a reasonable query given that company’s somewhat checkered past with city and state agencies.

Four years ago the MTA terminated its contract with Titan after the company defaulted on about $20,000,000 it owed the agency. Titan claimed to be blindsided by the MTA’s move.

More recently Titan caused a minor kerfuffle when Bluetooth beacons were revealed to have been placed on its public telephones. The beacons, capable of sending and receiving information from smartphones and other Bluetooth devices, raised hackles from privacy activists claiming the devices’ placement — and the fact that they were installed with no public announcement or input — evidenced some sort of guerrilla advertising-aware surveillance initiative.

The beacons were installed with the approval of the city’s Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications (DoITT). Informed observers recognized the ludicrousness of those privacy concerns, but facts seldom prevent such a story from going viral. The beacons were removed.

Despite its lack of substance the beacon “scandal” — along with the company’s sometimes rocky relationship with the city — made Titan a surprising recipient of such a major telecommunications contract.

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It would be unfortunate if one characteristic passed on from payphones of today to LinkNYC is that the devices almost never work. Advertising comes first in today’s payphone business. With virtually all of its expected income coming from ad revenues there is little reason to assume the same would not hold true for LinkNYC.

Payphones today commonly remain out of service for months as payphone companies wait for Verizon to restore dial tone to their phones. With that copper landline wiring presumably not in the picture the phone service offered by LinkNYC should be more reliable than today’s public telephones, at least on a day to day basis.

CityBridge implies that its Links would be better taken care of than payphones of today, as hundreds of new jobs would be created for the purpose of servicing them.

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Nevertheless the monopolistic nature of CityBridge’s ownership of these kiosks should concern the FCRC, which will conduct a public hearing about the matter in December. With no legitimate competition and no financial incentive to keep the Links’ “free” features functional it is easy to imagine thousands of these devices languishing in disrepair, save for their ability to display advertisements — just like payphones of today.

CityBridge claims LinkNYC will earn the city half a billion dollars over 12 years, or an average of about $42 million a year. With a goal of installing as many as 10,000 of these kiosks it would take some time to reach that promise, as thousands of these units could not simply rise up overnight.

The possibility of raking in $42 million a year puts LinkNYC’s potential value to New York quite a bit higher than kiosks of today. About $17 million from payphone kiosk advertising revenues enriched city coffers in 2013.

The city might need that extra money to fend off contentious and expensive litigation. Telebeam and other payphone providers warned throughout the RFP process of lawsuits targeting what they describe as a municipally sanctioned monopoly. Telecommunications lawyers, already chomping at the bit in anticipation of litigation, see the lawsuits as inevitable.

LinkNYC, should it be approved, has a lot of promises — maybe too many — to live up to. 12 years seems like a rather lengthy time frame for locking in a contract of this sort considering the program’s unproven value to everyday New Yorkers. And while prototypes of the blandly named Links devices look reasonably modern and sleek today the pace at which technology evolves could, in just a few years, have them looking like those homely payphones of the future from decades ago.

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Posted & filed under Business, General.

If you have $7,500 burning a hole in your Passbook you might consider Adopting a Bench at Central Park, leaving your more-or-less permanent mark in the city’s most famous outdoor space.

Browsing the plaques along Wallach Walk last week I found myself contemplating the rabbit hole of mortality which informed many messages on these benches, while also imagining a future in which I have enough money to throw away on something like this.

The plaques contain marriage proposals, enigmatic proclamations, epitaphial memorials typical of tombstones, and in the case of architect Stanley Prowler a motivational message which curiously includes an endorsement for a particular candy bar:

“Love NY City, walk, read the NY Times, cherish friends, dress well, be amusing, play with babies, eat Kit Kat bars and ice cream but stay slim.”

Amongst such lightweight amusements I did a double-take when a villainous name appeared: Madoff.

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These four plaques, honoring the memory of Bernard Madoff’s parents (Ralph and Sylvia Madoff) and in-laws (Saul and Sara Alpern), are located near the 67th Street entrance to the park, about a half mile from the former penthouse apartment of one of the greatest scam artists of all time.

The signature name of a much-loathed criminal enterprise maintaining a place of honor in a city park did not settle well with me. I winced with mild revulsion, interpreting Madoff’s public pronouncement of love toward his parents as a self-serving lie. (they were crooks too, by the way.) Lies infested virtually every aspect of Madoff’s sociopathic life of deceit. Why should this “Loving Memory” of his
parents, paid for with stolen money, be any different?

In 2009 the New York Post reported on a call to have the plaques removed. That effort appears to have gone nowhere, while predictions that the markers would be vandalized have not come to pass.

Should a name synonymous with epic fraud be removed from these benches? The Madoff Recovery Initiative evidently chose not to sue the Central Park Conservancy for clawback recovery of the con artist’s Adopt-a-Bench donations or from his foundation’s annual 5-figure charitable contributions. Presumably the Conservancy was deemed wholly unaware of the money’s criminal origins. Like many non-profits which benefited from Madoff’s largess the park was spared from having to return Madoff’s charitable gifts. Even if the park was ordered to return the $30,000 Madoff paid for them there is no reason to assume the plaques themselves would be physically removed.

Should the Central Park Conservancy itself consider removing them, simply as a matter of good taste? These “gifts” came from dirty money. Other plaques in Central Park may have come from questionable funds as well but none would be so recognizably criminal. The very public and acrimonious disintegration of the Madoff family makes any kind of “Loving Memory” look bitterly ridiculous, transforming these benches into a tastelessly morbid tourist attraction. One of the “grandchildren” hanged himself with a dog leash, the other declared “My father is dead to me”, while two of the children will likely die in prison.

If anything is left from the Madoff Recovery Initiative then perhaps the relatively paltry amount of $7,500 could go toward one “Adopt-a-Bench” plaque in memory of those whose financial lives were wrenched asunder by Madoff’s massive scam.

In a perverse way I think Madoff would approve.

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Posted & filed under Humor, Nostalgia, NYC Payphones.

Some years ago I noticed a newly installed payphone outside a coffee shop on Broadway in Astoria. Payphones, even 6 or 7 years ago when this occurred, were typically being removed from service, not placed anew.

I picked up the handset of this Astoria payphone and wouldn’t you know it: No dial tone. Probably the first new payphone in Astoria in years and it was out of service right away.

I hung up the phone.

It started ringing.

Can a phone with no dial tone receive incoming calls?

The synthetic, chirpy sound of the ringing payphone faintly penetrated the street noises, inviting me to answer.

I picked up and said hello to a youngish-sounding woman. “This number just showed up on my phone,” she explained. I replied “This is a payphone. Someone must have tried to call you from here.”

“Who could it be?” she asked.

“I have no idea,” I responded.

“I’m confuuuuuuuused…”

She spoke quickly. I couldn’t hear her every word, but somehow she segued from the missed call to loneliness. She said she was lying in bed after waking from a “delicious dream”.

I was not seduced by this seemingly scripted, insincere encounter. Her delivery broke down. She became irritable.

I said nothing unkind. Offering to let the phone handset hang there, I suggested someone else might pick it up and talk to her.

Her voice, initially soft and coy, became sharp, and hard. She uttered obscenities. Through the phone I heard a man’s voice, yelling. A terrific racket erupted, as if dozens of pots and pans had fallen from a shelf.

The call ended.

I may never know what was going on that night. Was it a sting operation? A hooker’s unusual gambit for finding new customers? Reality TV programmers trying to trap passers-by into some sort of humiliation?

A week later the payphone was gone.

Mark Thomas lives and works in New York City. He can be reached at sorabji.nyc, sorabji.com and The Public Payphone Project where he has followed the changing world of public telephony since 1995.