Now That Everyone Has Cell Phones, What Should New York City Do With All Those Phone Booths?

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Dec. 5 2012 12:05 PM

Michael Bloomberg Wants To Do Something Cool With New York's Phone Booths

WiFi phone booth
A WiFi-enabled phone booth in Hong Kong.

Photo by Mike Clarke/AFP/Getty Images

Just 15 years ago, New York City had 35,000 phone booths. Thanks to cell phones it now has just 11,000, most of which serve little purpose for anyone but Clark Kent. Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants to change that.

In a contest that it's billing as the first of its kind in the world, the Bloomberg administration is calling on techies, urban designers, and policy wonks to reinvent the payphone for the 21st Century. For a few months now the city has been experimenting with turning a handful of its phone booths into WiFi hotspots, replacing the alphanumeric keypads with touchscreens, and displaying digital ads on the kiosks. And of course it's crucial that the city's remaining payphones still be able to make calls, as Hurricane Sandy proved.

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But Bloomberg thinks they can do more. Notably, he introduced the challenge by appearing via video at Tuesday night's New York Tech Meetup, a monthly gathering that draws thousands of young techies and aspiring entrepreneurs to watch startup demos and network with one another. The city's chief digital officer, Rachel Haot, and IT commissioner, Rahul Merchant, appealed to the meetup's members in person to participate. Merchant said that with a little creativity, New York's payphone infrastructure could become the city's most important public technological asset.

Anyone can enter the payphone challenge by visiting nyc.gov/reinventpayphones. An information session on Jan. 23 will give participants a chance to ask questions and learn more about the infrastructure and what the city hopes to get from it. Prototype applications are due in February, and the semi-finalists will show off their ideas at a demo day on March 5.

Meanwhile, feel free to brainstorm in the comments below.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.