The Shared City

What Can Bill de Blasio Really Do About Broadband in New York City?

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio introduces Maya Wiley, the city’s new counsel to the mayor, on February 18. Credit: New York City Mayor’s Office.

During a press conference at City Hall two Tuesdays ago, a reporter asked New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio about the city’s "chief legal authority" to increase access to high-speed Internet service in the city. As a candidate, de Blasio pledged to bring high-speed fiber connections to every one of the 3 million households in the five boroughs by 2020. De Blasio, though, pointed out that he’s not an attorney and punted the question to Maya Wiley, founder and president of the Center for Social Inclusion, whom de Blasio had just appointed counsel to the mayor in large part because of her work on what she calls "broadband equity."

"There are lots of levers that the city can pull to ensure access," Wiley said about bringing more broadband to New Yorkers, "and we will be pulling all of them."

If ‘pull all the levers’ seems like a slightly fuzzy plan, there are reasons for that. De Blasio is, by his own admission, asking Wiley to take on a role defined more broadly than it had been under previous mayors. Another reason is that, as broadband advocates tend to think about it, increasing broadband access is less about a silver bullet than a patchwork of solutions.

Some aren’t all that obvious. At a conference at Fordham Law School last week, Brooklyn City Councilmember Brad Lander recalled a time when people thought that connecting citizens en masse called for setting up community technology centers. "It turns out that we have community technology centers," Lander said. "They’re called public libraries." Those in the field say that people flock to public libraries to use the Internet, but that they could be doing more. Ellen Goodman, a professor at Rutgers Law School, argued that libraries are full of the sort of "boring infrastructure" — temperature-controlled rooms that are great for servers, rooftops for setting up wireless antennae — that suggests hooking each of them up to ultra-fast broadband.

A mayor, the thinking goes, could invest more in the libraries that already exist.

Bruce Lincoln, an educational technologist with the group Silicon Harlem, put another option on the table: Recognize and exploit the fact that high-speed broadband tends to follow closely behind where the tech industry sets up shop.

Then there’s making sure the networks that already blanket the city are welcoming. Enrique Armijo, an assistant professor at North Carolina’s Elon Law School, pointed to the shutdown of cell phone service in San Francisco’s BART stations after the shooting death of Oscar Grant in 2011, a move attributed by the rapid transit system to "BART staff or contractors." When it comes to public-private networks, Armijo said, free speech should apply the same way it would in public spaces. (Even if, as we saw with Zuccotti Park, those rules are today muddled.) Two summers ago, New York City partnered with a company called Titan to turn pay phones into WiFi hotspots. "Titan is a bound to the first amendment the same as New York City would be," Armijo said. A mayor, or his counsel, could write that principle into future contracts.

De Blasio has proven himself eager to get his administration’s hands dirty in the details of the city’s major construction projects, most notably as with his renegotiating of a plan to renovate Williamsburg’s Domino Sugar Factory. Cities can insist that future construction projects include series of underground tubes that make it easier to later on lay cables. "If you’re digging the streets," said Sharon Gillett, principle technology policy strategist at Microsoft, "put in a conduit, for goodness sakes."

That said, there are levers that the lawyers are in the best position to pull. As the city’s public advocate, de Blasio leaned on Verizon to hold up its end of a 2008 franchise agreement to bring its FiOS service to New York that stipulated that the ultra-fast fiber service would be available by the middle of this year to anyone in the city who wanted it. It’s hardly on track to be, and a mayor and his legal team are in a better position to force compliance with such things.

For their part, telecom companies argue that there’s only so much they can be expected to do. Chris Levendos, Verizon’s executive director for national operations, said that the company has spent billions wiring the city with fiber optics "from one end to the other." It’s the most anyone has spent on one city in U.S. telecom history, he said. The hitch, though, is that New York is "complicated, dense and quite occupied" while also reluctant to stand still, making the task exceedingly complex. It has required a great deal of resources, Levendos said. Translation: Verizon has made considerable investments in New York already, and it wouldn’t mind a little gratitude.

Advocates see that as bunk. Verizon knew that New York was quite dense — and the political climate uncertain — when it made an agreement to roll out fiber. Internet providers see as much opportunity in a city like New York as anyone else does, they say. Besides, this isn’t necessarily a business issue, nor even a social justice one. It’s a city issue, said some at Fordham. For one, New York pays a lot for its own broadband needs, which gives it a fair amount of purchasing power. Beyond that, the more you can put city services online — from requesting a garbage pickup to applying for social services — the less burden is placed on government.

"It’s costing the city money," Gillett said, "because they’re trying to deliver city services and they’d like to stop delivering them on paper, but they can’t, because not everyone is online."

When it comes to broadband, de Blasio promises that he’s just getting started. If all else falls, though, he has a freedom that some other mayors don’t. Nearly two dozen states have laws on the books that ban or restrict localities from building out their own broadband networks. New York State, though, isn’t one of them. All options are on the table, de Blasio said during the campaign, including running municipal broadband networks "in parts of the city where private firms may not have the capacity or interest."

The Shared City is made possible with the support of The Knight Foundation.

Nancy Scola is a lead writer for the Washington Post’s tech blog, The Switch. Scola’s writing on the intersections of technology and politics has been published by The American Prospect, Capital, Columbia Journalism Review, New York, Reuters, Salon, Science Progress, Seed, and other publications.

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