clock menu more-arrow no yes

Meet Sidewalk Labs, Google's Company That's Trying to Fix Cities and the Internet All at Once

A planned citywide network of super-fast Wi-Fi nodes hints at wider urban objectives at the Google-backed outfit.

Intersection

Alphabet, Google’s newfangled conglomeration, arrived in August, but we will not see its first financial figures until January, when the company reports two sets of earnings — Google and the “other bets.” Each subsidiary will not break out its own performance, but the earnings reports will offer some view into their costs and output. Before then, Re/code is unpacking one Alphabet company a week, presenting the facts, figures and, just maybe, the financials behind the silos of the world’s most ambitious company. This week, it’s Sidewalk Labs.

Previously:


In June, Google created Sidewalk Labs, an “urban innovation company” — a firm built to apply tech solutions to cities. Its first move? It formed another company.

Tuesday brings the first fruits of that new company: Intersection — a merger of an outdoor ad and design firm, led by Sidewalk Labs — will unveil a long-awaited free gigabit wireless network across New York City, called LinkNYC.

The plan calls for the deployment of a $200 million network of as many as 7,500 Wi-Fi kiosks — known as Links — across the entire city, over the next eight years. Each will offering free super-fast access within a radius of as much as 400 feet, free phone calls within the U.S., and USB charging stations for smart phones and tablets. The kiosks will replace New York’s aging collection of coin-operated pay phones.

In a briefing with journalists in New York on Monday, Intersection’s chief innovation officer Colin O’Donnell said that LinkNYC will eventually be the largest and fastest public Wi-Fi network in the world. “We’re deploying a network that’s so fast the most recent iPhone is only capable of using less than half its available speed,” he said.

The first two Link sites will be formally unveiled today, and service will be turned on later this month. The first 500-odd Links are expected to be live by mid-July.

The network will support itself with revenue generated by display advertising. Currently, ads on city phone booths generate about $40 million a year. The expectation, O’Donnell said in an interview, is that the Link kiosks, which sport two large screens on either side, will improve on that by delivering more ads, constantly rotating them along with better targeting based on who’s likely to be walking by given the location, time of day, time of year or weather conditions.

Each kiosk will have two large displays that can show targeted ads to people walking by. Those ads, O’Donnell said, can be targeted precisely based on location, demographics of a neighborhood, time of year, weather or other factors.

Key execs: Dan Doctoroff, CEO; Rohit Aggarwala, head of policy

For Sidewalk Labs, LinkNYC offers some hint of its business to come. The Alphabet company, led by Dan Doctoroff, a former deputy mayor and titan of New York’s policy world, is part tech incubator and part investor. It plans to find commercially viable tech ideas relevant to urban issues — in this case, public Wi-Fi — and back them or run them itself.

And it plans to spread its gospel. Since its formation, Sidewalk Labs has brought in key city movers and shakers, including former NYC transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, for (yet unspecified) consultation. It also hired BerlinRosen, an influential public relations firm.

After broadband, Sidewalk Labs is likely to stab at other critical urban issues, like transportation, energy and housing. Doctor off, who once started the group that lobbied for NYC to win the Olympic games, is a fan of big development projects, such as convention centers — projects that (theoretically) spur real estate development. In a speech this fall, Doctoroff noted how ubiquitous sensor technology could alter how cities zone buildings. He’s also bullish on the “sharing economy.”

Robert Puentes, an expert on municipal policy at Brookings Institute, said that the hunger from city governments for tech fixes and ways to deploy untapped troves of city data will feed sizable markets. “As we’re starting to figure out new ways to keep cities functioning, there are new kinds of models that are emerging,” Puentes said. “We’ve just barely begun.”

In some ways, this approach puts the Alphabet company up against IBM, which has pushed its “smart cities” solutions for years, and Salesforce, which is moving into embedded sensors.

But its biggest challenge may be getting any moonshot idea out of committees. While the other Alphabet companies must rely on some government cooperation, Sidewalk Labs’ entire model is dependent on coordination with public sector.

Who to Know

That’s probably why it put a public sector vet at its helm. At New York City’s office for economic development during the Michael Bloomberg mayorship, an edict came from the top: Come up with “Doctoroff ideas.” Dan Doctoroff who ran the division from 2002 to 2008 before heading media powerhouse Bloomberg LP, was known for pushing ambitious projects in government, like the green initiative PlaNYC.

A former investment banker, Doctoroff is described as someone intent on being seen as an urban visionary. He doesn’t have a ton of tech credentials, however. But Alphabet CEO Larry Page seems to be leaning on his exec’s expertise in navigating city halls more than engineering. “It’s not a Google company. It’s Doctoroff,” one person familiar with Sidewalk Labs said.

Doctoroff’s team, so far, is small. A key member is Rohit Aggarwala, another former member of Bloomberg’s administration, who leads policy for Sidewalk Labs. He coordinated then-mayor Bloomberg’s prized push on climate change and cities, a background that suggests that the Alphabet shop may move more aggressively into energy.

It has picked up a few members on the West Coast, including Sam Gerstenzang, a former junior partner for Andreessen Horowitz, for its “New Ventures” team, and Anand Babu, a Googler who was product manager for the mobile personal assistant Google Now.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.