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Electricity, Gas – and Broadband

by Marcus Banks, Jun 26, 2007
 

Should broadband access join water, gas and electricity and be a basic utility available to all New Yorkers? Some advocates say yes and are likely to press that point as the New York City Broadband Advisory Committee continues to conduct hearings throughout the city.

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The Broadband Advisory Committee, created by Local Law 126, exists to advise the mayor and City Council speaker “on issues pertaining to access to broadband technologies within the city of New York.” Broadband, as defined by that law is a “high-speed connection to the Internet” that enables the “fast relay of voice and data that many have come to expect.” Broadband capabilities are essential to many online activities, such as sharing videos, and make many other on-line tasks easier and quicker.

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After holding hearings in all five boroughs, the advisory committee will issue recommendations on broadband policy to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Telecommunications Policy Advisory Group.

The Broadband Advisory Committee has 15 members, eight appointed by Bloomberg and seven appointed by City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. In the main, the mayoral appointees are focused on how to implement telecommunications policies that will enhance the city’s economic competitiveness, while the council appointees have a stronger interest in reducing the “digital divide” between people who can afford broadband access and those who cannot.

A DEMAND FOR BROADBAND

The concern for easier and more affordable broadband access figured prominently in the most recent hearing, held in Brooklyn in late May. Senior citizens spoke of facing discrimination and isolation because they did not have strong computer skills. High school students explained about how high-speed Internet access could assist with their studies. And library administrator Steven Schecter described how people sit outside the walls of Brooklyn central library on Grand Army Plaza to enjoy the free wireless signal during hours when the library is not open. (Wireless is the most practical form of broadband access for outdoor spaces at this time.) Many people bemoaned the paucity of broadband access in various neighborhoods, as well as the high cost of the service that is available.

(Appropriately enough for a hearing about broadband access, most of the speaker presentations are available on YouTube – and would be painful to watch the clips on a dial-up connection. Carlos Pareja of Brooklyn Community Access TV produced a montage of testimony about how enhanced broadband access would benefit senior citizens who wish to re-enter the job market or keep in touch with their grandchildren. Clips of the day’s events are available on the advisory committee’s blog, along with transcripts of spoken testimony. Finally, an audio file of the entire three- hour hearing is available.)

At the hearings, according to coverage on the Empire Zone blog, many who spoke faulted the cost and quality of broadband service now available.

COMMITTEE MEMBERS RESPOND

In comments after the hearing, several members of the Broadband Advisory Committee commented on the necessity of good, quick Internet access, but with different degrees of intensity.

Shaun Belle, president and CEO of the Mount Hope Housing Company and chair of the advisory committee, said it “would be in the best interest of NYC as a whole to develop a comprehensive approach to developing at a minimum a broadband infrastructure for public consumption.” In Belle’s view, broadband should be “a public utility of sorts.” But he said , recognizing it as such would require the city to invest in “private partnerships and infrastructure.”

“The city has a responsibility to intercede and in effect declare the Internet is a ‘Public Good’ and guarantee delivery of low cost broadband access to everyone,” said Andrew Rasiej, the founder of the Personal Democracy Forum and an unsuccessful candidate for public advocate in 2005.

To provide this service, he said, the city should build a ‘’wireless mesh network’’ over the entire city that would avoid copper or cable hardwire delivery and accelerate access. Radically enhancing wireless access was the centerpiece of Rasiej’s campaign for public advocate.

Matthew Eisner, a Brooklyn writer who testified at the May hearing would go even further. “Why not just supply all New Yorkers with free, wireless Internet access?” he reportedly said. Explaining that he pays $60 a month for what he described as poor service, Eisner continued, “We’re a progressive city — why can’t we just have the city provide us with good, free wireless Internet service? I can’t think of a greater democratizing force than putting high-speed Internet service in the hands of all New Yorkers, not just those who can afford it.”

Failing to improve Internet access could have economic ramifications, Steven Masur, lawyer for start-up businesses, told the hearing. “If we in New York want to be competitive with places like the Silicon Valley, Mumbai or Shanghai, we need cheap widespread broadband access,” he warned the committee

But what does the administration plan to do? Wendy Lader, vice president of telecommunications policy at the Web New York City Economic Development Corporation, which includes the Telecommunications Policy Advisory Group, wrote, “The Bloomberg administration is committed to promoting innovative broadband solutions to support businesses and residents throughout neighborhoods in all five boroughs.” Ladet also said the corporation has commissioned a study on the current state of broadband in New York City and what steps the city might “take to ensure all New Yorkers have access to robust broadband services.”

In her comments, Lader did not explicitly make the “public good” arguments put forth by Belle and Rasiej. This difference of perspective could make for fascinating debate among advisory committee members but could also hinder their ability to provide clear, unanimous recommendations to the mayor and the City Council.

AN UNCHARTED PATH

But even if the committee agrees that the city must have universal, inexpensive – if not free — broadband access, New York would still face substantial challenges. No American city has yet developed a comprehensive policy for enhancing broadband access. In municipal government terms, this is still very new territory.

Philadelphia and San Francisco have both announced ambitious plans to enhance wireless access in each city. (This is analogous, but not identical to, increasing broadband access.) Advocates for enhanced municipal wireless access often hail these efforts. But nothing comes easily.

San Francisco reached an agreement under which EarthLink would build a citywide wireless network and Google would provide free basic Internet service. Mayor Gavin Newsom termed it “the best proposal of its kind in the United States.” But last month the city’s Board of Supervisors voted to delay action on the plan. Some critics expressed concern that the system could be used to store private information on individuals and charged that the free service might not be exactly free after all.

Philadelphia, which could have “America's biggest citywide wifi network,” would make Internet access available to low-income residents for $9.95 a month. But some Comments Potential users have objected, arguing the service should be entirely free.

In New York City, a robust dialogue about the future of broadband access is underway, accelerated by the committee hearings. But no meaningful policy action will occur until policymakers decide whether broadband is a utility or a luxury.

 




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