From Waste To WiFi: New York City’s Innovation Shows No Signs of Slowing

Photo from report on 7/16/16 that BigBelly is seeking a NYC grant to turn their solar-powerd trash receptacles into WiFi hotspots

Photo from report on 7/16/16 that BigBelly is seeking a NYC grant to turn their solar-powerd trash receptacles into WiFi hotspots

We’ve heard that one person’s trash is another person’s treasure, but if a Massachusetts company has its way, they’ll turn waste into WiFi. The maker of the popular BigBelly waste receptacles has applied for a grant from the New York City Mayor’s office to turn hundreds of their trash bins into mobile hotspots, focusing on underserved neighborhoods. Imagine being able to surf the Internet on a park bench while sipping your coffee, only to throw your cup away right into your WiFi provider.

According to Engadget, BigBelly “has been making high-tech solar-powered trash cans and recycling containers, which can detect if the garbage is too smelly, notify trash collectors and even compress their contents if they're near capacity, for a long time. The company tested its first two hotspot containers last winter in New York, measuring their activity and signal quality for a few hours per day.”

The story falls on the heels of a recent update about the project to turn old New York City payphones into free WiFi hotspots. While we covered details of the project in a blog post when it was announced last year, The Guardian reported in June that the project recently moved a big step closer to fruition: “Sidewalk Labs, the new Google-backed startup that was created last month to improve city life through technological innovation, has announced it is investing in a project to turn the city’s payphones into WiFi hotspots.”

According to The Guardian, “New York is only the beginning: Sidewalk Labs envisions spreading this concept to other cities. The model is scalable, according to company officials. And Intersection says it will help other cities update ageing [sic] infrastructure, such as old street lights and bus shelters, to ‘create a cohesive network of dynamic messaging across these assets’ – including emergency notifications, real-time transit information and wayfinding.”

“By integrating new technologies into existing infrastructure, cities can reinvent these assets – providing not just more modern, free services to citizens but even more revenue to cities,” said Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff, who previously served as a deputy mayor of New York from 2001 to 2008.

In addition to providing free WiFi to a radius of up to 150 feet, the payphone kiosks are being designed to provide mobile device chargers, an interactive screen that would also offer Internet access, free nationwide phone calls and access to local services and information. The WiFi garbage cans will serve up more than free Internet, as well, and can display public announcements and alerts. To generate advertising revenue, the kiosks will serve as digital billboards, and it’s likely that the garbage cans will do the same.

After six months without any updates, this project now looks promising. Aside from becoming a new revenue stream for Google, turning New York City’s underused assets, such as garbage cans and payphones, into free WiFi and information hubs will test the role technology can play to close the digital divide and change the ways people experience and interact with cities. For instance, a restaurant could advertise its lunch specials on a garbage can right around the corner. And, while online security has not yet been addressed, we hope that this project will also force these Internet and advertising providers to address the risk of data breaches over public WiFi (see Sinu blog, “How to protect your data when using public Wi-Fi”).