A Skype from New York: Big Apple Set to Offer VoIP in Public Payphones

Once an everyday convenience for urban residents around the globe, phone booths have been a dying breed in recent years, and New York City is no exception. Killed off by the cell phone, they've been disappearing from metropolitan street corners almost as quickly as it took Clark Kent to use one to transform into Superman.

There are still over 12,000 phone booths in New York City — although there are only 4 of the fully-enclosed, accordion door models long favored by superheroes, storm refuge seekers, and people trying to stave off impending bird attacks.

Starting next month, 250 of those phone booths will be transformed into sophisticated, VoIP-friendly community kiosks as part of a pilot program, with 32-inch video "smart screens" taking the place of the traditional-but-my-God-who-wants-to-touch-it-much-less-put-it-to-your-face-publicly-accessible-and-never-Windexed phone.

The new waterproof, dustproof tablet-technology-supported screens will offer easy-access features to residents and tourists, such as VoIP calling functionality. Initially they will display neighborhood information in multiple languages, such as:

  • Nearby restaurants
  • Store sales in the vicinity
  • Landmark information
  • Traffic updates
  • Safety alerts

According to the New York Post, the screens will also offer one-touch access to 311 and critical city services, so 'callers' can:

  • Get info about tax refunds
  • File complaints
  • Get city information
  • Learn about bike share programs
  • Find out about free park events

That means that if you're walking down West 53rd and you're still fuming about the building inspector who won't issue you a permit for your bathroom renovation, you can file a complaint at the next pay phone you pass. So much more convenient!

Another reassuring feature for anyone who's been in or near a public pay phone in Manhattan recently is the fact that the kiosks can be kept impeccably clean — they can be sprayed down with a jet hose.

Through ads and coin-operated use, the city earns about $18 million annually through pay phones. The new screens are to be a revenue sharing venture, with the city getting the screens for free and netting (after the pilot program) 36% of all ad revenue.

The city's plan is to transform the phone booths into limited access Internet hubs (restricted search and surf), equipping these smart screens to make Skype VoIP calls, check personal email, and serve as WiFi hotspots (presumably for a nominal fee).

WiFi access basically means you'll be able to use the city's payphone to enable your cell phone to make other, non-Skype VoIP phone calls and bypass the minutes on your phone carrier's plan. That seems a little convoluted, but, hey, whatever works!

The current phone booth contract with the city expires in 2014. If the VoIP-enabled smart screen kiosk replacements are a success during the test phase, the city could see 12,000+ corner locations for VoIP phone calls and checking email within two to three years.

The city will also be replacing the underground (subway) analog payphones with Skype-capable payphones with 22-inch screens. The subway phones will include charging outlets and webcams for things like Skype video conferencing... or whatever else you might feel comfortable using a webcam for in an NYC subway station.