Municipally provided internet has been a contentious topic in the past, but New York City is looking to move forward with a plan to provide residents with internet service by converting the city’s thousands of now-obsolete phone booths into Wi-Fi hotspots.

Mayor Bill de Blasio intends to build out a public Internet network covering a large portion of the city starting in 2015. One element of the plan would involve converting approximately 7,300 public phone booths to Wi-Fi hotspots, according to Tech Times. The pay phone hotspots would give free service to cellphone, smartphone and mobile computing device users within an 85-foot radius.

New York recently issued a request for proposals from tech companies to create the network. According to the request, New York is guaranteed a minimum of $17.5 million per year in compensation from the company chosen to establish the network. The total value of the network is estimated at more than $200 million, mostly from selling ad space on the hotspots.

But the phone booth-based WiFi isn’t the only free network New York will provide. By the end of the month, the city is expected to complete the installation of a 95-block wired zone in Harlem, the largest continuous free public network in the country, according to The New York Daily News. The network was paid for by a $2 million gift from philanthropist Glenn Fuhrman.

New York understands existing and proposed Wi-Fi networks as more than just technological perks - the city and community leaders understand internet access to be a social justice issue, the paper reports. “High-speed Internet access is now as fundamental as water, as fundamental as the railroads were in the 18th century,” Maya Wiley, a veteran civil rights lawyer and member of the task force charged with battling income inequality in New York, told The New York Daily News.

Wiley says that Internet access shouldn’t be viewed as an issue concerning only the technologically elite, “The mistake that we often make is thinking that the only people who should be or can be working on these issues are technologists,” Wiley told The New York Daily News.

She adds that Internet access is becoming a requirement for finding employment. “If you are low-income and you want to find a job, increasingly, you need high-speed broadband to do it,” Wiley told the paper.

Tech entrepreneur Andre Rasiej, chairman of the N.Y. Tech Meetup, told the paper the city’s new network likely won’t cause residents to cancel their agreements with internet service providers, but it will be a serviceable option for people on the move, or those in underserved communities.

“In order for New York to succeed, it has to be connected. And this is a building block towards a 21st century New York,” Rasiej told The New York Daily News.


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