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Google’s Sidewalk Labs kicks off with project to bring free Wi-Fi to New York City

When Google recently launched Sidewalk Labs with the aim of “improving life in cities for everyone through the application of technology to solve urban problems,” many were left wondering precisely what the Mountain View company was cooking up out back.

In a message announcing the Sidewalk, Larry Page, the Web giant’s CEO, likened the new venture to the Google X experimental research lab, causing some to wonder if the company was on the verge of unleashing a bunch of weird and wonderful projects on unsuspecting city dwellers.

Seems not. At least, not initially. Sidewalk’s first move will be to bring free Wi-Fi to New York City, where the new firm happens to be based. To do this, it’s taking control of two companies already heavily involved in the initiative – Control Group and Titan – to create a new outfit called Intersection.

Yes, the move toward free Wi-Fi on the streets of the Big Apple is already underway, and something we reported on last November. The work of Control Group and Titan centers on a project called LinkNYC aimed at converting thousands of the city’s payphone kiosks into Wi-Fi hotspots.

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If the plans remain the same under Intersection, the overhauled kiosks will offer free 24/7 gigabit Wi-Fi within a 150-foot radius, free calls to anywhere within the U.S., a touchscreen tablet interface offering information on city services and attractions, charging functionality for mobile devices, and a digital display showing ads and public service announcements.

In a Facebook post announcing Intersection, Sidewalk said the new company “will help make cities connected places where you can walk down any street and access free ultra high-speed Wi-Fi, find transit and wayfinding information, access information about city services – the possibilities are endless.”

So if Intersection is successful in bringing free Wi-Fi to the streets of New York City, we can expect to see the scheme rolled out to other major cities over time.

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When Page announced Sidewalk earlier this month, he said the plan was to concentrate on developing and incubating urban technologies “to address issues like cost of living, efficient transportation and energy usage.”

At the same time, Sidewalk said that while technology has in recent years already helped to improve life in urban areas, “the biggest challenges that cities face, such as making transportation more efficient and lowering the cost of living, reducing energy usage and helping government operate more efficiently have, so far, been more difficult to address.”

The company says it hopes to make improvements in these areas with a focus on new products, platforms and partnerships. With the announcement this week of its first initiative, the journey has begun.