NYC's free WiFi kiosk

The Art Commission approved the installation of 100 advertising kiosks that also provide free WiFi, finalizing a public-private plan that has drawn criticism from neighborhood civic groups.

The kiosks stand 9.5 feet tall and feature an LED panel on both sides for displaying ads, as well as USB ports and emergency 911 buttons. An estimated 80 of the 100 kiosks will be placed in Center City and University City. Another 20 will be dispersed at undecided locations throughout Philadelphia.

The Art Commission made its ruling despite notable disagreement from the community. Alan Greenberger, chair of the commission, said out of 193 letters sent regarding the topic, about 190 expressed disapproval of the kiosks, which are called Links.

In advance of Wednesday’s Art Commission meeting, the Crosstown Coalition, which represents 30 Philadelphia civic associations, came to a unanimous conclusion that the Commission should suspend the kiosk plan.

Their concerns centered largely on aesthetics and space. Opponents wonder how bright screens will fit in with the city’s historic atmosphere and whether the kiosks will take up too much space on the narrow streets. Others who spoke at the public meeting mentioned the possibility the kiosks could distract drivers and cyclists.

Still, just one of the Art Commission’s nine members, painter Joe Laragione, voted against the kiosks. He also motioned to try a pilot program to install 10 kiosks to gauge the effect before bringing 100 into the city. Nobody seconded his motion.

“What do we have gain? Free WiFi?” Laragione asked. “What do we have to lose? A very high percentage of people being unhappy.”

The plan was brought forward by the Office of Transportation and Infrastructure Systems and advertising firm Intersection, which has installed several hundred kiosks in New York and London already. Christopher Puchalsky, director of policy and strategic initiatives for OTIS, said there are other benefits, such as the 911 buttons and reduced advertising rates for art institutions, which can highlight their events on the kiosks.

Mary Tracy, president of Scenic Philadelphia, dismissed statements from OTIS and Intersection that the kiosks are about benefits to the community, saying they are more about the advertisements.

“It’s really an excuse,” she said, “and being used to justify adding more clutter to our streets.”

The city will earn an estimated $450,000 annually in revenue from the ads. Intersection, which also designed the new SEPTA bus shelters, will pay for the installation.

But WiFi, Puchalsky suggested, is the main benefit for citizens — and a significant one.

“I think the way that was stated was like, ‘free WiFi, what’s that?’ For somebody like me, a professional, and a lot of people in that room who can afford a data plan, free WiFi is not that big,” he said. “For a lot of Philadelphians, free WiFi is a lifeline to access our increasingly online, digital world. So I think free WiFi should not be discounted.”

Jennifer Hensley, general manager for Intersection, said more than 2.7 million people have signed up to use WiFi the last 18 months in New York.

Mark Dent is a reporter/curator at BillyPenn. He previously worked for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where he covered the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Penn State football and the Penn State administration. His...