In New York City, nearly a third of households do not have a broadband internet connection at home, and over 1.5 million New Yorkers have neither a mobile connection or home broadband connection.
This month, the city released an Internet Master Plan to address its digital divide and offer a new, more equitable vision for broadband access across the city. “We’ve watched and waited as the private sector has led the way in broadband delivery in New York City,” says John Paul Farmer, the city’s chief technology officer. “And we’ve seen that the digital divide has persisted.”
Private sector delivery of broadband across New York City has resulted in a few big problems, according to Greta Byrum, co-director of the Digital Equity Laboratory, an initiative of The New School. “Big telecom companies have squeezed out most of the competition,” she says, leading to high internet prices many can’t afford. Companies like Verizon have also built private broadband infrastructure without collaborating with other companies or the city, resulting in service disparities. In low-income communities, service providers are often unwilling to upgrade infrastructure unless they’re confident of returns.
Over the last half decade, the city started taking legal action to address these entrenched monopolies. In 2017 — nine years after Verizon promised to make its high-speed Fios internet service available to every household in New York City — the city sued the company, saying it had failed to keep that pledge.
At the same time, the city started developing its own vision for a more equitable internet. Under Mayor de Blasio, the Office of the Chief Technology Officer established five principles — equity, performance, affordability, privacy and choice — that went on to inform the master plan.
The plan draws on research and analysis led by HR&A Advisors alongside other partners that include the Digital Equity Laboratory. It calls for a network expansion to provide universal broadband, with “neutral host” infrastructure that can be shared by multiple operators rather than a single company. This, the plan says, will lower costs, increase competition, minimize physical disruption to the city and incentivize private-sector investments to reach customers.
Universal broadband will require the city to build out this “open access fiber optic infrastructure” on nearly every street intersection. Every neighborhood would then have a central “aggregation point,” a room to connect an individual using the internet to the city’s core network. To accomplish this, the city will allow internet service providers to extend fiber optic infrastructure from the intersection to city-owned assets like rooftops and utility poles and deliver service using a number of potential technologies.
New York isn’t creating its own internet service, at a time when publicly owned internet networks have popped up around the country. Instead, it’s relying on public/private partnerships. The plan estimates full implementation would cost $2.1 billion, likely requiring a mix of both public and private investment. The plan suggests two potential partnership models: one in which private entities take responsibility for some combination of design, construction, financing, operations and maintenance, another in which the city assumes capital expenses and enters operating contracts with private partners for other risks and responsibilities.
The year ahead will bring more clarity on what these partnerships could look like, according to Farmer. In the first phase of implementation, the city plans to identify critical areas of need for public infrastructure, outline a seed investment of city capital, then ask the private sector to make proposals for using city-owned property.
“It’s an opportunity for anyone — large and small, existing players in the broadband market and those who have not been here — to respond with their ideas,” he says. “There is no silver bullet, and we don’t anticipate any one organization or company to be the answer. It’s going to be a portfolio approach with everyone at the table with the role they see themselves playing, and asking them what would they need to make that happen.”
There are already community internet services in New York that offer a glimpse of opportunities outside the major providers. In 2015 the South Bronx community organization The Point CDC launched the Free Hunts Point Community WiFi program, a mesh network providing free wi-fi through a network of routers and wifi bouncers placed by volunteer business and residents. In South Brooklyn, Red Hook Initiative launched its own community service. In Uptown Manhattan, Silicon Harlem established a platform to ensure the local community can be involved in the process of testing new technology.
There’s also NYC Mesh, a volunteer-run collective that connects apartments, small businesses, schools and buildings to the internet using wireless routers and fiber. Users pay what they can for the service.
“We were really thrilled to be mentioned in the Internet Master Plan … noting that the expected monthly cost of having NYC Mesh service was zero dollars per month,” says Scott Rasmussen, a community organizer with the service. (Rasmussen was also a 2019 Next City Vanguard.) “We’re really excited by finding ways to partner with the city and use city assets — it’s something we’ve wanted to do for a long time.”
Rasmussen still has concerns, however, including the lingering question of fully funding the $2.1 billion needed for universal broadband. “Short of that, if it’s just a series of new public/private partnerships that are using city assets and property — it’s something you want to look closely at, if it’s just a way for private industry to use city property.”
Outreach with existing community providers will be crucial, he believes. “The really basic message is in showing people that tech isn’t this unattainable, mystical object, or that the internet isn’t a limited resource Verizon sells to you every month,” he notes, “But that people can really take these issues into their own hands, organize in their communities and make meaningful change.”
Emily Nonko is a social justice and solutions-oriented reporter based in Brooklyn, New York. She covers a range of topics for Next City, including arts and culture, housing, movement building and transit.