The last week of March saw two seemingly unrelated events that could affect the lives of poor people in New York City.
In one Mayor Michael Bloomberg outlined his plans for "Opportunity NYC,"which will provide cash incentives to low-income parents who make sure their children go to school, take their children to the doctor regularly and seek opportunities for employment and job training. The mayor hopes that such incentives will break the “cycle of poverty” that still traps many city families.
The second took place in the Bronx, where an advisory committee on expanding access to high-speed Internet access in New York City held its first hearing.
Bloomberg has stated repeatedly that tackling entrenched poverty is a core priority of his second and final term. His new opportunity program is a way to do that. And the mayor wants to increase Internet penetration throughout the city and the availability of “broadband” (high speed, wired or wireless access) connections. In this area, though, Bloomberg’s focus is on improving broadband access for the city’s businesses, especially those outside Manhattan. There is no doubt that this is critical; a recent report by the United States Department of Commerce documents economic benefits for communities that expand the level of broadband access
But the mayor has been less aggressive in trying to increase Internet access in disadvantaged communities. And many experts see changing that as one way to help reduce poverty on the harsh side of the digital divide. With improved access to high-speed Internet capabilities, children would enjoy enhanced educational opportunities and their parents could learn the skills necessary to thrive in an increasingly computer-based economy
THE NEW DIGITAL DIVIDE
Although broadband has become increasingly available for people of modest incomes, it has not reached those living at the lower end of the income scale. According to the most recent report by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, only 21 percent of households with an annual income of $30,000 or less had a broadband connection at home in 2006. On the other hand, 68 percent of households that earn over $75,000 had a home broadband connection.
While most businesses in Manhattan have a variety of options for high sped Internet options, businesses in the other four boroughs and residents all around the city are not so favored, according to a briefing paper prepared for the Bronx hearing. “Many of the businesses around the five boroughs have limited options for obtaining broadband and often find it impossible to access a reliable high-speed connection at all,” the paper said. And it continued, “Most residents have only one or two service providers from which to choose, and many are unable to afford the service.”
“Here in New York City, many underserved communities won't survive in this new information age without the technical knowledge many of us take for granted,” Council Speaker Christine Quinn said in a written statement before the hearing. “The bottom line is we need to use out-of-the box-thinking to ensure that today's technology is used to improve the future of New Yorkers.”
Improving access to broadband â€“ and developing new ways to use it â€“ could create jobs, improve schools and make the city safer, Gale Brewer, chair of the City Council technology committee, has said.
Many other American cities — from Philadelphia to Chicago to Houston to Los Angeles — have launched initiatives to increase broadband access for residents and visitors, as well as businesses. Meanwhile, New York has made modest enhancements to providing wireless (not necessarily broadband access) in city parks.
In an effort to expand broadband access for New Yorkers, City Council in 2005 passed Local Law 126, sponsored by Brewer, which established a “temporary advisory committee” to offer guidance to the mayor and City Council Speaker on “issues pertaining to access to broadband technologies within the city of New York” PDF). The City Council speaker would appoint seven members of the committee; the mayor would appoint eight. It was this committee that sponsored the Bronx hearing.
Four more such sessions, one in each borough, will be held this year. The goal for each hearing is to ascertain what New Yorkers believe is an “affordable” price for broadband access; how New Yorkers who already enjoy broadband use it; and how those without broadband access would use it if it were available to them.
The members of the Broadband Advisory Committee selected by the Council Speaker reflect Brewer’s belief in public investment to increase broadband access. They include Andrew Rasiej, who ran for public advocate in 2005 on a platform of radically increasing wireless access throughout New York City, and Neil Pariser, senior vice president of the South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation, which has worked to close the digital divide in its corner of the City.
The mayoral appointees reflect a more business-centric approach to the issue. They include Howard Szarfarc, president of Time Warner Cable of New York and New Jersey, and Thomas Dunne, a vice president of Verizon New York. Szarfarc and Dunne also serve on the Mayor’s Telecommunications Policy Advisory Group and were among the people who in 2005 developed the mayor’s current telecommunications policy agenda, “Telecommunications and Economic Policy in New City: A Plan for Action.” With its clear focus on the business sector, this agenda does not address how to increase broadband access in disadvantaged communities.
Of course it makes sense to have business representation on the Broadband Advisory Committee. Unfortunately, this committee contains two groups that are working at cross-purposes. One side seeks government action to bridge the digital divide, while the other believes in an entrepreneurial approach.
It remains to be seen how much impact the Broadband Advisory Committee will have on public policy. Whatever happens, there is a strong case to be made for government investment to expand broadband access in poor communities. Even if “Opportunity NYC” succeeds beyond all expectations, a cash transfer program can only be so effective in a labor market that requires everyone to be comfortable with computer technology