RealTime IT News

NYC Unveils First Internet-Ready Pay Phone

By Erin Joyce

New York City's first Internet-ready public phone is open for service, offering Web access and e-mail for 25 cents a minute -- and looking to tease cell phone users back to pay phones.

Located on the southwest corner of West 46th Street off Fifth Avenue, the phone also features long distance service using voice-over IP telephony.

At 25 cents a minute, or with a swipe of a credit card that starts a meter running, the public can surf and check Web-based e-mail, even snap a picture to send as an attachment.

Depending on how the 30-day trial run goes -- including whether the rugged-looking phone can withstand vandalism -- its owner TCC Teleplex would like to install 100 more around the city.

"If you think of the 30 million tourists who visit the city each year, many of them are from outside the country and their cell phones don't work here," said Dennis Novick, the president and chief executive of TCC Teleplex, located in Manhattan.

People can use it to make reservations at Broadway shows, even pay their parking tickets, he said (the Web sites NYC.gov and Broadway.com are prominent with NetYou Corp., which powers the service).

In addition to the 25 cent per-minute charge, the company is looking at revenue possibilities with cable and media company Viacom, which is the media representative for the sides of the phone kiosk.

Beyond capturing the fancy of tourists, Novick wants to get the attention of the estimated 97 percent of cell phone users without Web access on their devices.

Like many pay phone companies created in the mid-1980s after the break-up of AT&T, TCC Teleplex is now trying to cope with the impact of cell phone usage on the 1,500 pay phones it operates around the city.

The American Public Communications Council, for example, estimates that pay phone usage has dropped by 30 percent within the past three years.

As he watched passers-by insert pockets of quarters, swipe credit cards, or just marvel at the yellow-lined screen behind a thick plastic-like shield, Novick said, "people ask us how are we going to make money with this. I see it as more than that right now. I really believe it's a natural evolution of what a public phone should be."

The phone also features a red button that automatically dials 911 and sends a location signal that lets emergency workers know where the call came from right away.

Novick said the company settled on West 46th Street because it was the earliest dedicated DSL connection it could get from its Internet provider, Verizon Communications.

Ben Lieman, who had swung by on his bike to check it out, said he found it a great addition for the public but found the design prohibitive for disabled access.

"Somebody in a wheelchair would have a hard time reaching it," said Lieman, who helps deploy assisted technologies for the department of social services. "The screen could also be enlarged, and the keypad -- the white letters on the black keys will be rubbed off soon -- could have a better contrast such as yellow on black or even red on black."

But overall, he said he was glad to see Internet access offered in public.

Same with Nick Jarecki, who stopped in from his office around the corner on Fifth Avenue to check out the service.

"I think it's a good step toward getting this stuff out into the public in New York," said Jarecki. "The video camera is cool, too."

Jarecki said he was intrigued about trying the phone, given that the company he helped found 18 months ago, PIX (for Public Internet Exchange), has installed some 24 Internet-access kiosks in hotels and cafes around the city, with more on the way.

With PIX offering similar services, including a planned rollout of an order system for move ticket purchases (his brother founded Moviefone before selling it to AOL), Jarecki was more intrigued about teaming up with TCC Teleplex.

It could be just the kind of sentiment that TCC Teleplex's Novick is looking for, along with preferences and usage patterns that show up over the next 30 days.