“There’s no such thing as too much Wi-Fi,” says Peter Izzo. An exec at New York City advertising firm Van Wagner, Izzo points to the eight phone booths his company has so far converted into Wi-Fi hot spots. In June, for example, Manhattanites—who can pick up Wi-Fi within 150 feet of the booths—logged about 24,000 free minutes by simply agreeing to Van Wagner’s terms and conditions, as is custom for public Wi-Fi service at, say, Starbucks. (Izzo hopes to eventually use the service to sell web ads to his clients.)

Would a similar plan work for the hundreds of unused—and likely moribund—phone booths in Seattle? Arvind Krishnamurthy, a University of Washington computer science associate professor who studies the evolution of online networks, likes the idea. “If you take the original purpose of phone booths, it was for people who need communication or to be connected,” he says. Converting them into Wi-Fi hot spots fulfills the same need, “but it’s more
appropriate for the times.”

This is particularly relevant for underserved communities. Some 40 percent of Seattle households with incomes below $40,000 don’t have regular access to Wi-Fi, according to a study commissioned by the city in 2009.

Dana Alixander, spokesperson at FSH Communications, which owns most of the pay phones in the state, says that 502 of its booths still stand downtown—but that the company routinely puts underused booths out of their misery. FSH, she says, is intrigued by the Wi-Fi hot spot idea: “It’s all about finding the right solution that would be considered an economic success for both parties, which in this case would be FSH Communications and hopefully the City of Seattle.”

And that’s where things get dicey. Back in NYC, Izzo and company spent years building the conduits and infrastructure for the Wi-Fi conversion. And any time a change is made to the booths, such as adding antennas, they must get permission from the City. And they’re required to remain in constant contact with its Department of Information and Communications Technology to stay current on licensing and to verify that Wi-Fi access is secure for those using it. 

The takeaway is that for phone-booth Wi-Fi to succeed, the city has to be on board. D’Anne Mount, spokesperson for Seattle’s Department of Information Technology, says, “I think we would support anything that increased Wi-Fi or broadband.” 

Yes but, pay phones turned to Wi-Fi hot spots: What do you think? “It’s not part of our plan, but I think anyone would be happy with it.”

In other words, for now, a pay phone is just a pay phone.