Gotham Gazette Fri, 07 May 2021 05:22:26 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) New York City’s Learners of All Ages Need Public and Private Sector Leaders to Close the Digital Divide greenpoint lib env

An empty library (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

Too many New Yorkers are feeling the effects of being disconnected. The digital divide — a persistent gap in access to low-cost, high-speed internet and devices — is affecting their educational plans and, potentially, their livelihoods. The solution is multi-pronged, and will require those in positions of influence, from policymakers and funders to private-industry leaders.

When New York City announced its Internet Master Plan in January 2020, it estimated that 40% of households — 3.4 million residents — were partially disconnected from the internet, having either home or mobile service, but not both. Worse, 1.5 million residents were totally disconnected with no access to service. 

According to the city’s study, 46% of households living in poverty lacked broadband access at home, and lower-income households that were connected spent up to 10% of their monthly budgets on high-speed internet. 

That was before COVID-19. Since then, the five boroughs lost 560,100 private-sector jobs, and connectivity access points, such as libraries and community centers, were forced to limit public access due to the pandemic. 

The economic and educational impacts of the pandemic have increased the urgency and raised the stakes in an already dire situation. For K-12 learners, for adults whose dreams include a postsecondary degree, and for those who need reskilling to increase their chances of finding employment, access to education is vital. Of particular importance during the pandemic is access to online education, which is one of the fastest growing segments of higher education in the United States.

Mayor de Blasio’s administration should be praised for its ongoing efforts to bridge the digital divide. As part of the city’s ambitious $2.1 billion Internet Master Plan, the mayor announced plans in March to award telecommunications companies more than $150 million in contracts for projects that would bring affordable broadband to 600,000 city residents. The city also recently upgraded internet service at 50 of its public-housing community centers and buildings. 

Recognizing the gravity of the opportunity gap amid the pandemic, city agencies deployed hundreds of thousands of internet-ready devices to K-12 learners and additional thousands to the elderly

But what about those in between? 

Out-of-work or underemployed adults need access to devices and low-cost broadband now, to apply for jobs and pursue online educational programs. As the city rightly focuses on connecting children and older adults, it cannot forget the needs of New York City’s vital workforce.

I urge policymakers to recognize high-speed broadband access as a fundamental need, such as water and utilities. Federal, state and city efforts to expand broadband access will help, but a comprehensive solution can best be found by combining efforts from both private and public sectors.

In August, Western Governors University launched a $1 million scholarship program to grant high-speed internet access and devices to students who lack these resources. The Online Access Scholarship program is part of a broader WGU initiative aimed at working with policymakers, funders, and private industry to close the digital divide. This will allow prospective students in New York City’s five boroughs to begin a degree program that will make a difference in their lives while strengthening the city’s economy. 

New York City should be commended for seeing the value in public-private solutions. Its pact with AT&T has brought free Wi-Fi to more than 20 city parks for the past decade. Recently, the de Blasio administration issued a request for proposals, asking telecommunications companies to step up with “any and all ideas” to establish the rapid and equitable deployment of low-cost broadband in 33 neighborhoods. 

Some smaller locales have successfully deployed public-private partnerships at scale. Take the Virginia counties of Accomack and Northampton, which created the independent, not-for-profit Eastern Shore of Virginia Broadband Authority, an all-fiber network, powered by private inter net providers, that has installed hundreds of miles of cable and services around 350 buildings, including schools and businesses. 

Chattanooga, Tenn., is another example. The city already has its own municipally-owned and operated internet service. But gaps remain for economically disadvantaged families. In 2020, Chattanooga launched a public-private partnership that connects 28,000 eligible students — those who meet the criteria for federal free and reduced-price school meals — with a high-speed internet connection and a Wi-Fi router at no cost. 

The State of New York’s recently-passed fiscal year 2021-2022 budget includes legislation requiring internet service providers to offer — and advertise — $15-per-month plans for low-income households. Also in the budget is a partnership with Schmidt Futures and the Ford Foundation to launch ConnectED NY, an initiative to connect 50,000 students in economically-disadvantaged school districts to free internet through the end of the 2022 academic year.

All the city’s residents need equitable access to high-speed broadband as we head into a post-covid recovery period. It is an investment in our neighbors, families, and neighborhoods. It is an investment in the labor force and the talent pipelines that support businesses and local economies. 

We cannot afford to let lack of broadband access serve as a barrier between individuals and learning opportunities, or between our businesses and the talent pool our city needs to thrive and grow. Moving forward in a landscape dramatically changed by COVID-19 will require all of us working together to raise the bar academically and economically in every borough. 

Rebecca L. Watts, Ph.D., serves as a regional vice president for Western Governors University (WGU), a non-profit, accredited university focused on competency-based learning that serves more than 130,000 students, including 2,900 in New York and nearly 1,000 in the greater New York City area. She holds a doctorate in higher education leadership from Ohio University. On Twitter @WGUnortheast & @WGU.

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New York City’s Learners of All Ages Need Public and Private Sector Leaders to Close the Digital Divide Thu, 22 Apr 2021 04:00:00 +0000
Want an Equitable Recovery? Take Big Steps Now to Close the Digital Divide may sc ch r

Kids with computers (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

New York City’s public schools are welcoming back many middle and high school students this month, moving away from a turbulent era of distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. And while our young people are learning valuable lessons in school, we have all learned a lesson during social distancing: broadband internet is a basic necessity. 

What once seemed like a luxury for downloading music or shopping, broadband internet access is now absolutely critical for work and school. Students need high-speed internet for distance learning, allowing them to engage with teachers through teleconferencing as well as to conduct research. Adults need it for telecommuting during social distancing — and potentially in perpetuum if employers decide not to reopen or to only partially reopen physical offices — as well as performing essential tasks, such as scheduling COVID-19 vaccination appointments. 

As chair of the State Senate Committee on Energy and Telecommunications, I know that broadband internet is critical for our economic recovery. When it comes to finding a job, an unemployed person with internet access is five percentage points more likely to have a job in a month; after a year, the discrepancy widens to 12 percentage points. And when someone with broadband access is hired for a job, her starting salary is 3% to 4% higher than someone without. Employers also benefit from being able to better find people matching the skills needed for a job opening, and then save on high office rents through telecommuting. Besides the labor market, high speed internet allows people to start their own businesses from home. 

Not surprisingly, one study found that broadband internet increases a locality’s employment growth rate by 6.4 percentage points. Another found that broadband increased per capita GDP by 1.2%, and annual per capita growth by 0.9 to 1.5%. For someone living on the edge of poverty, these margins could be the difference between having food on the table and going hungry.

Fortunately, almost all of New York City is now wired for broadband. Unfortunately, not all New Yorkers are reaping the benefits. Almost 30% of households in our city do not have broadband internet, including 46% of households living below the poverty line. And unfortunately for children in distance learning, 23% of households with a child under 17 do not have broadband. This helps explain why the Department of Education identified over 2,000 public school students as “not engaged” since the start of distance learning.

Closing this “digital divide,” then, will be an essential tool for the country to have a stronger, faster, and more equitable recovery from the pandemic. New York City has made a modicum of progress by compelling some of our Internet Service Providers to offer low-income households internet plans starting at $15 to $20 a month, but even this will be out of reach for many New Yorkers, if they even know such programs exist. Closing the divide is even more challenging for those not lucky enough to live in New York City, who might be in a rural area with no broadband access at all.

That is why I wrote a letter last month to one of my constituents, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, urging him to use his influence to pass Rep. James Clyburn’s Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act. The AAIA would allocate $80 billion to deploy broadband to underserved communities and $5 billion for Wi-Fi hotspots, with a requirement that any ISP on the new network offer an affordable option to everyone. The act would also provide a subsidy of up to $50 a month for low-income households’ internet bills. This would provide a much-needed kickstart to America’s economic recovery.

I hope that my fellow lifelong Brooklynite can pass the AAIA. But rather than wait on Washington, New York City can be a role model for the rest of the country by guaranteeing broadband internet to ever yone. When negotiating future franchise agreements, we must require ISPs to offer free or deeply-affordable internet services to low-income households, with publicity being effective enough that New Yorkers know such services exist. As the next New York City Comptroller, I will take an active role in these negotiations to make this a reality.

An economic recovery for the United States and New York City is inevitable. The question is whether we want a recovery with economic justice where we lift up everyone, or a recovery that leaves many behind like the one we saw after the Great Recession. If we have the will — and moral compass — to achieve the former, then closing the digital divide will be essential in our efforts to do so.

State Senator Kevin Parker is a Democratic candidate for New York City Comptroller. On Twitter @SenatorParker.

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Want an Equitable Recovery? Take Big Steps Now to Close the Digital Divide Thu, 11 Mar 2021 05:00:00 +0000
Further Deregulation of 5G Technology Won’t Close the Digital Divide gov cuomoaug13

Broadband for All (photo: Phillip Kamrass/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)

Just before the new year, a representative of a little-known telecommunications infrastructure company, Crowne Castle, made the case in an op-ed at Gotham Gazette that the key to closing the digital divide in New York State is more deregulation.

No one would disagree with the author’s assessment of the underlying problem: the pandemic confirmed, in case anyone remained unconvinced, that access to high-speed broadband is indispensable in modern society. Remote learning is impossible without it, and hundreds of thousands of New York school children are being left behind because their households lack high-speed internet service. At a time when visiting hospitals or a doctor’s office can be literally life-threatening, broadband is critical for conducting telemedicine as well as securing vaccine appointments. Likewise, for small businesses pivoting to online sales in order to keep their businesses alive. And on and on. Further, nearly one-fourth of New York State households don’t have home broadband (a sad fact unmentioned in the prior op-ed).

Crowne Castle says telecoms are begging to deliver 5G wireless service to everyone and pins the cause of the digital divide on alleged over-regulation of 5G small cell infrastructure in New York State. Strip local governments of the authority to regulate access to public streets and property, remove allegedly excessive fees, and just like that, deployment of 5G wireless technology will magically close the digital divide.

Pretty seductive, eh? Well, don’t be fooled. In fact, Crowne Castle’s cure means doubling down on exactly what got us into this mess in the first place.  

There are two primary causes of the digital divide, and both can be traced directly back to industry-driven deregulation of telecommunications over the past 30 years. First, the failure of broadband providers to build out high-speed infrastructure comprehensively and equitably has left an untold number of New Yorkers without access to high-speed broadband. In many rural and lower-income areas, telecom companies decided it simply wasn’t sufficiently lucrative to invest in new, high-speed fiber networks. The second major cause of the digital divide is that many low-income New Yorkers just can’t afford high-speed internet service. While 92% of New Yorkers with incomes of $75,000 a year or more have home broadband, slightly over 50% of New Yorkers who make less than $30,000 a year have it. The pandemic has highlighted the impact of this harmful inequity.  

Contrast this dilemma with the construction of the original universal telephone network in the middle decades of the 20th century. When AT&T was a regulated monopoly, state and federal regulators ensured that every American home was served by telephone service and that service was affordable. But swept up in the deregulatory fervor of the ‘80s and ‘90s, the 1996 Telecommunications Act deferred to markets, which were dominated by self-interested mega-corporations, to deliver next generation technology to the nation. The theory was that if cable companies and telephone companies freely competed in the marketplace, consumers would get the most advanced telecommunications products at reasonable prices.

The theory was wrong. Allowing telecom companies to pick and choose where they wanted to compete meant that some communities—like most of New York’s upstate cities and many rural areas, never got telecom fiber that would compete with cable companies. Unchallenged by telecoms, cable companies in those areas failed to upgrade their already overpriced services. Much of New York State endures a cable monopoly, with service that is both crummy and expensive. And in many rural areas, there is no high-speed service at all—and no mechanism for regulators to force buildout. Telecom and cable companies demanded deregulation and received it on a platter; today’s digital divide is the result. 

That’s why the additional deregulation proposed by Crowne Castle is precisely the wrong solution. New Yorkers should also cast a skeptical eye on the hype surrounding 5G. First, 5G service available today provides no solutions for rural communities where broadband is least available. A few providers are piloting fixed 5G for home service, but the technology faces significant obstacles to large-scale deployment. For example, the fastest 5G spectrum cannot penetrate trees and walls—and is therefore not a reliable substitute for wireline broadband. 

Second, the promised speeds of more than 500 megabits per second are not available from every carrier and don’t even reach most urban consumers today. For example, Verizon’s heavily hyped “ultra-wideband 5G” delivers superfast wireless speeds only in parts of dense urban areas, whereas its more widely available 5G using low-band spectrum is actually slower than 4G LTE much of the time. Ultra-wideband 5G requires radio and antennas spaced just a few hundred feet apart because the spectrum only travels short distances. AT&T Mobility also relies on low-band spectrum and has faced similar criticism that its 5G speeds do not exceed its 4G network in many cases.

Finally, 5G is not cheap. To take advantage of ultra-wideband 5G, you must purchase a 5G enabled phone and there has to be a 5G network of small cells blanketing where you live or work. That hardly seems like a formula for increasing the availability of high-speed internet to low income New Yorkers.

The Communications Workers of America, alongside other consumer advocates and elected leaders, has been fighting for reasonable regulation of 5G deployment to protect workers and consumers as this new technology comes online. New York City in particular has implemented sensible, model regulations that require orderly deployment of small cells. The city has pushed carriers to build in low-income as well as wealthy neighborhoods, and has required small cell operators to be transparent about the construction contractors they hire and the safety and training of their workers. In contrast, in cities where 5G deployment is like the Wild West, operators have hung small cells seemingly randomly, without regard to aesthetics or safety, and in some cases have even drilled holes in the middle of public sidewalks to install poles to support the cells. 


 Repeatedly over the last several years, the industry has tried to sneak small cell regulatory preemption into the state budget under cover of darkness, in an effort to nullify regulatory initiatives like the one in New York City. Wisely, state legislators have successfully rebuffed this maneuver each time, preserving the authority of the state’s cities and towns to promulgate sensible regulations to protect workers and consumers. That’s the way it should stay. New Yorkers should remain skeptical of claims that deregulation is a panacea for the digital divide, and instead focus on policies that can truly promote additional broadband buildout and universal access for low-income New Yorkers.

Bob Master is Assistant to the Vice President of CWA District One. City Council Member Francisco Moya is Chair of the Council Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises. On Twitter @cwabobmaster & @FranciscoMoyaNY.

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Further Deregulation of 5G Technology Won’t Close the Digital Divide Mon, 18 Jan 2021 05:00:00 +0000
It’s Time to Bridge New York’s Digital Divide — Here’s How students wifi internet laptops

Getting students connected is one part (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor’s Office)

Despite millions of dollars spent and a variety of initiatives undertaken, too many New Yorkers still lack reliable online access at a time when it is more important than ever.

Reliable and fast connectivity is not a privilege, it’s essential. Without it, homes and businesses simply cannot succeed amid this public health crisis, which has forced many to live much of their lives virtually – from remote working and telehealth, to online learning, shopping, and socializing.  

The need to close the digital divide is now a mandate for elected officials at all levels of government. The telecommunications industry is eager to improve service across the state. Unfortunately, a patchwork of regulations stymie investments.

For example, a fee implemented on the fiber in municipal rights-of-way, passed as part of the 2019-20 state budget, makes it cost prohibitive to expand online service to areas most in need. Underground fiber provides the backbone of a strong online network. Also, a recently proposed E-LEARN bill would layer on additional costs. In addition, state lawmakers have twice rejected the governor’s proposed statewide plan to streamline permitting of small cells, the technology necessary to facilitate the deployment of the next generation of wireless connectivity, known as 5G. 

Students across the state face immense challenges getting online as schools shifted to all-virtual instruction in so many cases. Over 700,000 students and 18,000 teachers reportedly lack adequate connectivity, and the problem is particularly acute among Black and brown communities.  

In New York City alone, 40% of households across the five boroughs don’t have both home and mobile internet connections while 18% have neither.

5G will help address the digital divide with faster speeds, expanded capacity, and lower latency. The vast majority of Americans – 81% in 2019 – own a smartphone, making mobile devices an opportunity to address lack of connectivity, especially for young people, low-income individuals and people of color, who are more likely to rely on a smartphone as their primary means of online access.

Corporate philanthropy has rallied to help students in need throughout the pandemic, offering free or reduced-rate internet and donating WiFi hotspots and laptops. Now, elected officials and policy-makers need to facilitate the buildout of a small cell network that will increase coverage, capacity, and advance 5G. To do so, New York City must open a long-awaited reservation period – the time when authorized companies are allowed to bid on the right to use and lease city infrastructure (street and traffic lights and utility poles) to install telecommunications boxes and antennae — and the state Legislature must remove the barriers to deployment.

Reliable online service capable of transmitting large amounts of data is also critical to the success of telehealth, use of which increased exponentially in the pandemic’s early days and shows no signs of abating in popularity. NYC Health + Hospitals, for example, announced its telehealth visits had soared from just 500 in mid-March to more than 235,000 televisits by early June. Telehealth not only helps reduce costs, but also improves access to care in underserved rural areas. But good internet is essential.

Experts predict it will take years for New York and the nation to recover from the economic devastation wrought by the pandemic. Next-generation connectivity has the power to transform almost every aspect of modern life and the ability to generate millions of dollars in revenue and thousands of jobs across the state.  

Remote working, telehealth, online learning, commerce, entertainment and essential services, like 911, are all dependent on connectivity. However, we face many obstacles with expanding wired and wireless networks. If the city and state are serious about addressing the digital divide, keeping residents safe, and setting businesses up for success, it is well past time to think bigger than simply making internet subscriptions more affordable. We need the tools capable of ushering us into a world of virtual possibility – we need to enhance the current 4G infrastructure and deploy 5G.

Ana Rua is Government Affairs Manager at Crowne Castle.

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It’s Time to Bridge New York’s Digital Divide — Here’s How Tue, 29 Dec 2020 05:00:00 +0000
A Universal Internet Guarantee to Bridge the Digital Divide for Every New Yorker students computers

A plan for internet access at school and home (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

The coronavirus pandemic has shown all of us the importance of a reliable high-speed home internet connection, whether for remote learning and working from home or for gathering virtually with loved ones. There is a common cliché that “the virus doesn’t discriminate,” but the reality is that coronavirus disproportionately harms low-income communities of color impacted by systemic racism in government and the private sector.

With many households in these communities lacking high-speed internet, the shift to social distancing has been particularly challenging. As we prepare for a second wave, or for the next virus, we must rebuild our society with the guarantee of universal broadband—finally treating the internet as a utility like phone service or electricity. We must use all of New York City’s local regulatory power to deliver on the promise of universal broadband by establishing a Universal Internet Guarantee.

Mayor de Blasio recently took a step in the right direction when he announced $157 million in funding to expand broadband internet access to 600,000 underserved New Yorkers, including 200,000 public housing residents. But New York City’s public housing authority (NYCHA) has 173,762 public housing units, home to 381,159 authorized residents, and this plan could still leave half without internet. More than 1.5 million New Yorkers do not have broadband, and this plan would leave nearly 1 million of them on the wrong side of the ‘digital divide.’

To deliver truly universal broadband, we need several fixes at once. We could start with rezoning to require affordable Mandatory Inclusionary Internet, just like we required affordable housing with Mandatory Inclusionary Housing. We could create incentives for 5G providers to offer affordable access. We can require cable providers to expand affordable internet offerings we already won to every single low-income New Yorker. And if the providers won’t do it, we can take over their networks and do it ourselves by establishing a municipal broadband network.

We can upgrade existing infrastructure by speeding along the conversion of old payphones into free internet kiosks and add WiFi to bus stops. We can even open up the city government’s wireless network to the public.

The pandemic has shown us the importance of giving every public school student who needs one a laptop and affordable broadband in the home to eliminate the ‘homework gap’ (that became a ‘schoolwork gap’ during the pandemic) and give a whole new generation a real chance at equity. Where all else fails, for those we still haven’t reached in low-income communities of color, we must invest the millions promised by the mayor in businesses owned and operated by women and people of color to spur innovation and connect every last New Yorker.

In partnership together, with an eye toward each of our roles in the city’s franchising, we have authored a report that focuses on some of the most important aspects of the digital divide and proposed solutions to help close it and bring us closer to the equitable New York City we need to move toward immediately.

Read the full report here.

Eric Adams is the Brooklyn Borough President and has a vote on internet franchises through the FCRC. Ben Kallos is a New York City Council Member with a vote on internet franchise authorizations in the City Council. On Twitter @BKBoroHall & @BenKallos.

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A Universal Internet Guarantee to Bridge the Digital Divide for Every New Yorker Thu, 17 Dec 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: Maya Wiley Runs for Mayor maya wiley candidate edit

Maya Wiley on the train (photo: @mayawiley)

December 16, 2020 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Maya Wiley Runs for Mayor

Maya Wiley joined the show to discuss her candidacy for Mayor of New York City, including why she's running, what she means by "dignity," her ideas for job growth, her record on internet access, and her platform on school desegregation.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or

Max & Murphy · Episode 264: Maya Wiley Runs For Mayor

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Max & Murphy Podcast: Maya Wiley Runs for Mayor Wed, 16 Dec 2020 05:00:00 +0000
In Fits and Starts, De Blasio Moves Toward Internet Goal Set in 2014 media avail com

Mayor de Blasio's slow-moving internet promises (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

It took a global pandemic that brought the city to a grinding halt for Mayor Bill de Blasio to order that wi-fi be installed at every homeless shelter in the city housing children and to strike a deal to install high-speed broadband internet in every New York City Housing Authority public housing development.

More than six years after the mayor promised to create high-speed broadband networks across the city, nearly 20% of New Yorkers still lack access to the internet at home or by mobile device. While advocates have praised the mayor’s recent efforts, which includes a long-awaited Internet Master Plan for citywide “universal broadband” he announced in January, they wonder why it took so long to address this glaring problem in one of the richest cities in the richest country on earth.

In May 2014, just a few months into his tenure, de Blasio gave the keynote address at the opening of Internet Week New York and, as is his style, made lofty promises that were not followed through on.

“Our approach is going to be bold and it’s going to be decisive, because we simply haven’t done well enough in this city,” de Blasio said in the speech. “The goal is quite simple: We must have universal, affordable, high-speed internet access throughout this city. It’s as simple as that. And broadband’s essential for everything this community needs to do. It’s essential for everything we need to do to be a fair and just city. Because we can’t continue to have a digital divide that holds back so many of our citizens.”

“We really believe in an inclusive economy, in an effective education system, in a vibrant democracy, it all runs through broadband access,” the mayor said.

But the city has taken slow and faltering steps in achieving that goal. About 18% of New Yorkers, more than 1.5 million, do not have a broadband or a mobile internet connection, according to American Community Survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau. About 40% or 3.5 million people, only have one or the other. During the coronavirus pandemic, the lack of internet access for so many New Yorkers, especially poor people and people of color, including children living in shelters and public housing residents, has come into stark relief and been the source of controversy for the de Blasio administration.

On November 24, the mayor announced that the city had reached a settlement in a lawsuit with Verizon Fios which will require the company to provide high-speed broadband access to 500,000 more New Yorkers, including every resident of all NYCHA developments. “We've had a digital divide. We've had a huge disparity of who gets access to the internet and who doesn't, who gets reliable, fast broadband service, who doesn't, who can afford it, who can't,” he said, “But more and more, we understand that we have to create a society in which everyone has equal access...It has taken a lot of work and there's been some real struggle here and some real challenges, but we've gotten to a point where something real and tangible is going to happen for people, particularly working people and folks who have been left out.”

Among earlier achievements the administration has boasted is the LinkNYC program, which converted old payphones into free public wi-fi kiosks around the city. As of November 30, the city had set up 1,809 active LinkNYC kiosks since the program was launched in February 2016; 13 more kiosks have been installed but do not have wi-fi yet. The program, however, has been criticized for less presence throughout poorer communities than in areas of high commuter and tourist foot traffic, particularly in Manhattan. The administration also prides itself on having provided free internet service to the NYCHA Queensbridge Houses, the largest public housing development in the country with more than 6,000 residents, mostly Black and Hispanic families.

It was only in January of this year that the mayor released his Internet Master Plan, which aims to leverage city infrastructure and franchise agreements authorized by the city to provide affordable broadband access citywide. The plan would create competition where there currently barely exists any because of how private companies have been allowed to operate in the city so far. It entails creating an open-access fiber cable network across the five boroughs, prioritizing low-income communities, which can be used by multiple providers.

At a City Council hearing last month, the city’s Chief Technology Officer John Paul Farmer said the administration is getting ready to release its Universal Solicitation for Broadband, which will encourage competition and therefore create more affordable options. Real initial progress on the plan will only be seen in 2021, de Blasio’s final of his eight years as mayor.

[Read: De Blasio Administration Pledges to Finally Address City's Persistent 'Digital Divide' with Universal Internet Access]

The plan does promise boons for the city. In the best-case scenario, by 2045, it could create 165,000 jobs, increase personal income by $49 billion and create $142 billion in Gross City Product in that time, the plan predicts.

The need for equitable internet access has never been more dire. As the city closed its schools, thousands of children did not have the ability to access remote learning. Without the internet, families could not access health services which had transitioned online. The decennial Census was carried out mostly online this year for the first time. From public assistance application to rental benefits, government services are being provided through the internet en masse and those who required them most had the least access.

It’s the school system, however, which really seems to have brought the digital divide to the fore. Remote learning required internet-capable devices, and the city set out to purchase hundreds of thousands of tablets when schools were first closed. Since then, the Department of Education has handed out more than 300,000 internet-enabled iPads to students and another 175,000 devices to schools. But nine months into the pandemic outbreak in the city tens of thousands of students still do not have either a device or access to the internet.

In interviews and news conferences, de Blasio has been defensive when pressed on that glaring problem.

“I appreciate that there are professional critics in this society, but I really think there has to be recognition of the work that people did to close the digital divide,” he said in a November 19 news conference when presented with criticism from other elected officials and advocates, “to do something that had never been done before, back in April, as the pandemic was horrendous, to put these devices in the hands of kids. And I don't quite understand why the same question keeps being asked when in fact, the evidence is that immense work was done to provide devices, to address any problem with devices, to provide service if they need a different service. That work has literally been done now, family by family, for kids in shelters. Sometimes it's true that we don't have as many devices as we want to. But the bottom line is it's just been an endless effort to provide free technology to any family who needs it. And that's never stopped, and it's been consistent.”

What rankles advocates like those at the Legal Aid Society representing homeless families and elected officials like Public Advocate Jumaane Williams is that the city had ample time and resources to address the digital divide, particularly by providing broadband access at city-funded and -run facilities like homeless shelters and NYCHA buildings. But the administration only took expedited measures after the pandemic made them absolutely necessary.

“This administration is littered with lost opportunities to bridge the digital divide,” said City Council Member Ben Kallos in a phone interview last month. Kallos’ main gripe with the administration is that it hasn’t taken advantage of its power to approve franchise agreements with internet service providers. For instance, he pointed out, when the city and state approved the merger between Spectrum and Time Warner in 2016, he said the de Blasio administration should have insisted that the company provide free or low-cost internet to all public housing buildings in lieu of the nearly $150 million in franchise fees that the company pays every year. “At the time, we didn't need $150 million and I would still argue today that we still don't need that money. We can use that money in kind to get more low-income New Yorkers internet,” said Kallos, who chairs the Council’s contracts committee.

He also pointed out that the LinkNYC program, which held much promise, has been slow to realize its goals and the city has not held CityBridge, the consortium contracted to create the system, accountable for missing its target. By 2022, there were meant to be 7,500 kiosks across the five boroughs; there are less than 2,000 currently, and the system did not provide the revenue for the city that was projected.

“A revenue-first approach to the internet, whether through a franchise or a kiosk, is not the model we should have,” Kallos said. “We should have a model that prioritizes connectivity.” Kallos told Gotham Gazette that he is preparing a proposal that would use the city’s zoning regulations to help expand broadband akin to how the de Blasio administration has implemented the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing policy to build affordable housing. His idea, which could be termed Mandatory Inclusionary Internet, would take advantage of the expansion of 5G networks in the city, providing companies that provide affordable broadband access with incentives in the form of favorable placement of 5G cell towers and antennas.

The de Blasio administration’s Internet Master Plan deals with both short-term and long-term solutions for broadband access, and while providing universal broadband could be a years-long project, there are immediate steps the city could take. “I supported the plan then, I still support it now. I just don't know what the delay is,” said Gigi Sohn, distinguished fellow at the Georgetown Institute for Technology Law and Policy, who served as counselor to former Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chair Tom Wheeler from 2013 to 2016.

“They need to start on the shorter-term, like yesterday,” she said, pointing to city-owned facilities that could easily be used to expand internet access. “You’ve got all these community anchor institutions. Those are universities, schools, libraries, hospitals, all over the city...So the connectivity is there. You've just got to harness it.”

Robert Seamans, associate professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, analyzed the digital divide when he served as senior economist on President Barack Obama's Council of Economic Advisers between 2015 and 2016. In an interview, he expressed concerns about how the city’s digital divide could end up having longer term effects, particularly for low-income students without internet access who will fall behind their wealthier counterparts. “I worry a lot about education and the resulting disparities in education that we're going to see coming out of this one-to-two-year period where there's some households that won't be affected that much and others where their kids are just gonna basically be two years behind where they should be,” he said.

Seamans suggested several different means of tackling the problem, which address the causes behind it such as lack of consumer choice or the inability to afford access. “My belief is that there's not one single policy that we should believe would be a panacea of some sort,” he said.

Besides creating more competition among providers, which the mayor’s plan aims to do, he said the city could provide supply-side subsidies to companies to extend access to underserved areas and demand-side subsidies in payments to consumers so they can afford internet access.

But the best solution for both accessibility and affordability, on which there’s broad agreement, is a municipal broadband option that can undercut the pricier options provided by private firms with a profit motive.

As Seamans noted, unlike other states, New York does not prohibit localities from creating their own public internet option. And a public provider would be successful in a densely populated city like New York. “You would imagine that you'd be able to sign up a lot of customers. And we observe that these types of public providers have been operating, and in some cases, operating very successfully in a number of other cities and areas throughout the U.S. So it sort of stands to reason that you could have the same thing here in New York City,” he said.

Farmer, the city’s chief technology officer, has said that building out a citywide system will require buy-in from private firms.

“One of my biggest criticisms of this administration is, while there is a passion to do it, and seemingly bridge the digital divide, it hasn't done so in a comprehensive and a centralized manner,” said Noel Hidalgo, executive director of BetaNYC, a civic technology group. “It's had a number of different initiatives, all coming from different perspectives, but seemingly never really getting the complete attention of the mayor.”

Hidalgo said the mayor should appoint a deputy mayor who can continuously lead programs that chip away at the problem. Though the mayor’s former counsel, Maya Wiley, who is now running to succeed him, did make it a priority issue, the portfolio seems to have been largely ignored after she left the mayor’s office in 2016. “It isn't something that just happens,” Hidalgo said. “There needs to be incremental steps taken constantly to get us to building a concrete bridge over the digital divide.”

Hidalgo said the city needs to invest in fiber-network infrastructure for all public facilities, which some agencies like the NYPD have already done. But it should also be vigilant in sustaining that infrastructure, he said, pointing to the failure of NYCWiN, an internal wireless network that cost the city more than $900 million since 2009 and which the administration decided to scrap after it crashed in 2019. The system was too expensive to maintain, the mayor said last year, and the city would switch over to a commercial provider.

That was yet another missed opportunity to expand the reach of broadband, Kallos said. “We should have flipped the switch on NYCWiN,” he said, “and given it to the people.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

In Fits and Starts, De Blasio Moves Toward Internet Goal Set in 2014 Mon, 30 Nov 2020 05:00:00 +0000
As De Blasio Promises WiFi in Shelters to Help Homeless Children Learn, Advocates Question Tardiness and Implementation back ch ric

Remote learning in action (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

Amid widespread criticism about a lack of internet access for students in homeless shelters who need to get online more than ever to complete their school work, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city would equip every shelter with WiFi. But advocates are raising questions about execution of that pledge, especially as tens of thousands of students living in shelters need internet access now in order to engage in remote learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite de Blasio’s promise, issued Monday, to “ensure that every shelter gets WiFi,” no concrete plan for implementation has been offered publicly, though the mayor said Tuesday that he has one that will be shared.

“The instruction I have given to the Law Department and to Social Services is to ensure that every shelter gets Wi-Fi,” de Blasio said Monday. “We’ve got to stop this and make sure everyone has what they need. In terms of devices, I want to keep emphasizing, one, any parent, any kid with a problem should call 311 and let us know immediately.”

“Children in our shelters desperately need assistance with remote learning and have never received the tools they need to succeed from Mayor Bill de Blasio or the NYC Department of Education,” said Christine Quinn, the former City Council Speaker who is now the president and CEO of Win, New York City’s largest provider of shelter and support services for homeless women and their children, in a statement reacting to de Blasio’s pledge.

“We have worked tirelessly to make up the gap, hiring in-house technical support staff to navigate the Department of Education’s (DOE) service and using grant dollars to privately fund iPads, laptops, and hot spots to our students,” said Quinn.

Although the de Blasio administration did release its longtime-coming “Internet Master Plan” in January, and announced an acceleration of it in July amid the COVID-19 pandemic, promising to provide universal broadband access to city residents, the plan did not specifically mention homeless shelters, according to the New York City Bar Association, in an August press release.

The plan prioritized public housing developments, “which have suffered disproportionately during the Covid-19 pandemic,” the mayor’s July press release said. As well as investing “$157 million in ending digital redlining and providing high-speed internet,” and using “$87 million redirected from the NYPD budget.”

The Bar Association cited a recent report from its Justice Center’s Legal Clinic for the Homeless that found that “75 percent of surveyed shelter residents agreed that internet access would help improve their circumstances.” According to the report, “67 percent of homeless shelter residents wanted but had no regular access to the internet, and only 6 percent were able to access the internet through their shelters.”

In that August statement, the Bar Association called on the de Blasio administration to “prioritize City residents most impacted by the pandemic and to provide reliable Wi-Fi connections to shelter residents, updated Internet-ready devices,” and “Wireless or Bluetooth printers.”

Although advocates and others have demanded de Blasio detail plans to help students in shelters access Wi-Fi since the start of the pandemic, the mayor has not focused on wiring up shelters, instead pointing to the hundreds of thousands of internet-enabled devices that the city has been giving out to students in and out of shelters upon request, though tens of thousands of students are still awaiting those devices as the new school year continues toward November. Then came his shelter promise on Monday, seemingly provoked by a Daily News report about lack of access and devices.

In a letter written to de Blasio and the Department of Education (DOE) by City Comptroller Scott Stringer at the start of the school year, Stringer urged the city to “provide direct support to the over 100,000 children who experience homelessness each year.”

In his letter, Stringer called on the City to “designate an interagency Director of Students in Temporary Housing charged with addressing the educational needs of this vulnerable population.” 

The de Blasio administration launched the Learning Bridges program, which provides a free child care option for some children in 3-K through 8th grade who are in the blended learning model on days they are doing remote learning, with access pending application and a needs hierarchy the city established. However, “if these sites are not located near shelters, many students who most need these spaces may not be able to access them,” Stringer wrote.

Meanwhile, “City policy prohibits any child under the age of 18 from remaining in a shelter unit without a parent,” Stringer noted, especially relevant given that Learning Bridges is not available to high school-aged students.

“There's such a stigma for teenagers and youth for being homeless. That became a big benefit from having WiFi,” said Ted Houghton, President of Gateway Housing, a non-profit that works with homeless shelters in the city, including through a technical assistance program to help providers bring Wi-Fi to shelters. 

With a lack of stable internet access in homeless shelters and not every student equipped with an internet-enabled device from the city, some children are unable to log on for their remote classes, leading to questions about school administrators who may report the parents for the virtual truancy. 

“That is not a situation of neglect,” de Blasio said during his Monday press briefing, when asked about that possibility and pledging to rectify the internet access gap. “If a family is trying to solve a problem, we should be working with them and not giving them the impression that we are judging them negatively,” the mayor added.

Gateway Housing, which has worked with BronxWorks, CAMBA, and Help USA to equip shelters with Wi-Fi, saw both “an increase in the number of families going online, and an increase in “the amount of participation in virtual learning,” said Houghton.

Another concern, Houghton said, surrounds the monthly cost of Wi-Fi once it is installed in shelters with families.

“Each of these buildings is going to have what is essentially a corporate Wi-Fi account and that starts adding up,” said Houghton. “We do not want to see an unfunded mandate to shelter providers, because there is a cost associated with internet service.”

“You're talking about small shelters that might cost $10,000 to wire, very large shelters, some of which are spread out among many different buildings, that are going to cost more than $100,000,” Houghton added.

Responding to de Blasio’s initial announcement, attorneys representing homeless New Yorkers questioned the mayor’s commitment.

"The devil is in the details, and while we welcome this announcement, too much time has passed with too little action for us to accept it at face value,” said Susan Horwitz, Supervising Attorney of the Education Law Project at The Legal Aid Society, in a statement released Tuesday, wherein Legal Aid called on the de Blasio administration to quickly detail how it will get WiFi installed at all city shelters.

“City Hall should have addressed this issue several months ago,” she said.

“There is a plan in place,” de Blasio said Tuesday when asked at his daily press briefing about the criticism from Legal Aid and others. “We'll certainly go over it publicly. The idea here is to go through every shelter where there's kids. Obviously we have shelters that are adults only, that doesn't count, but shelters where there are kids get Wi-Fi in place. Some shelters that's going to be easier than others, depending on the physical reality. I want to make sure the kids have options immediately so they can study wherever they need to. So we'll lay out the plan and what it's going to take, what we're going to do short-term, what it's going to take to get every single shelter done. That's a commitment we make. Our IT department, DoITT, is leading the way, working with our Department of Social Services, and we will make sure every shelter has services. It’s as simple as that.”

Asked to provide the administration’s plan, the mayor’s press office did not respond to Gotham Gazette’s inquiry.

[Read: De Blasio Administration Pledges to Finally Address City's Persistent 'Digital Divide' with Universal Internet Access]

by Anna Conkling, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

As De Blasio Promises WiFi in Shelters to Help Homeless Children Learn, Advocates Question Tardiness and Implementation Tue, 27 Oct 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Investing in 5G is Crucial for Ensuring High Quality Education for New York Students tech in schools

technology in schools (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

21st century education requires 21st century innovation. If we want students to think critically and creatively to learn to solve problems and succeed in today’s modern world they also need and must have access to modern technology.

A decade ago, laptops, tablets, desktop computers, and internet access were just beginning to be introduced into schools and classrooms. Today, these tools are commonplace across New York and the nation, integrated into lesson plans and required for homework completion. And although cellphones can sometimes be distracting to students in school, more curriculum and education resources are being developed for mobile devices than ever before.

However, the classrooms of tomorrow will feature technology that today seems like science fiction: Virtual reality that lets teachers instruct students remotely in real time; augmented reality that students can use to conduct complex experiments; robots that interact with students and help monitor their learning progress; super high-speed connectivity that allows for massive amounts of information to be downloaded in just a few seconds. 

Students now in the K-12 system, members of so-called Generation Z, are tech natives; screens, social media and surfing the ‘net are as natural to them as breathing, and this has forced teachers and administrators to upend traditional instructional models.  

But it’s the incoming crop of students, dubbed Generation Alpha, who will force the true revolution of education. Born beginning in 2010 – the same year Apple debuted the iPad – these kids will be fully tech-integrated, having never known anything other than the modern digital age.

If the education community fails to adapt to meet the needs and expectations of this new crop of students, we risk losing them altogether.  

A 2013 Gallup poll of 500,000 students in grades five through 12 found that nearly eight in ten elementary students were “engaged” with school, but by high school, that number had dropped to four in ten. Once they got into their teenage years, students reported that school left them feeling “bored” and “stressed” instead of excited and engaged.  

This phenomenon will only worsen if we don’t rise to the challenge of educating the next generation. To do so, New York must make investments now in high-speed connectivity, ensuring that every child across the state has access to the most up-to-date technology that will be necessary for success. 

5G, the next evolution of wireless connectivity, is not only essential to this success but also to ensuring that New York leads the nation in creating a modern education system that truly matches needs of the modern world.

Governor Andrew Cuomo is right for recognizing that the development of the small cell technology is necessary for making 5G a reality across New York. The governor made clear in his executive budget proposal that streamlining the process for establishing a statewide small cell network is crucial for making sure all New Yorkers have access to high-speed broadband service. 

Access to high-speed networks is also important in higher education, enabling students and faculty around the state, the nation, and even the world to communicate and collaborate, which is the bedrock of the academic experience as well as the foundation for our economic well-being.

Improvements in connectivity will only further enhance the ability of the higher ed community to work together and share information, facilitating research breakthroughs that help build our economy and keep us on the cutting edge. 

Better connectivity will also improve distance learning, an increasingly popular way to provide access to college classes for a wide variety of “nontraditional” students, like military personnel, single mothers, or mid-career professionals. 

These students cannot, for reasons of transportation, childcare, or other challenges, attend regularly scheduled classes in person. Enhancing distance learning opportunities will help them further their education and get better jobs, improving the quality of life for them and their families while also helping to boost the state’s economy. 

New York has long recognized the benefit of technology in education. In 2014, state voters approved the Smart Schools Bond Act, authorizing the issuance of $2 billion worth of bonds to pay for upgrades and advancements – including in broadband or wireless connectivity for schools and their communities. 

But if investment is not made to improve the statewide network, these local improvements will be for naught and that money will be wasted. 

New York is clearly moving in the right direction when it comes to making sure school-age kids are getting the sound, basic education to which they are constitutionally entitled. 

The state Education Department recently released the latest data on graduation rates and found they’ve risen by 7.3 percent for students who entered high school in 2015 compared to those who did so in 2006. In addition, the achievement gap between students of color and their white peers has diminished between 1.5 and 6.8 percent. 

New York must keep this progress going by taking the lead in building the broadband infrastructure that gives all New Yorkers access to modern technology and connectivity they need to succeed and thrive.

Andrew Rasiej is the founder and CEO of Civic Hall. On Twitter @Rasiej.

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Investing in 5G is Crucial for Ensuring High Quality Education for New York Students Wed, 05 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Community WiFi is Already Here, Now It's Time to Expand It mayor office central

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office )

While politicians and industry focus on 5G wireless, the democratization of more common wireless technology has quietly made community-run wifi networks faster, better and cheaper than cable.

Look for wifi anywhere in New York City and you’ll likely find dozens of locked networks, each of which represents (more or less) someone giving a giant consumer internet company like Verizon, Spectrum, or Optimum around a thousand dollars a year. For years, technologists have dreamed of replacing these individual networks with community-run “mesh networks” that would allow people to share fast, secure connections while paying a fraction of the cost of conventional internet service providers.

This dream has, unfortunately, not turned into a reality for the vast majority of New Yorkers, and there are reasons for that.

The cable companies don’t want us to share our online connections because they’d lose a LOT of money -- billions and billions of dollars -- so their consumer internet contracts make sharing illegal. The manufacturers of consumer wifi routers don’t want us to share either, so they don’t make it easy to link routers together in a convenient way for multi-unit wifi sharing. And so, if you think like an internet consumer, efficient wifi sharing just isn’t practical. But if you think like an internet producer, the view begins to change.

Believe it or not, the internet is not a private club that only Optimum, Verizon, and the other consumer internet service providers (ISPs) allow us to access. It’s more like a water system. Consumer ISPs set up plumbing to get wifi (water) from the internet’s “backbone” (think water main) to your house, usually using the same coaxial cable that they laid down to offer cable TV decades ago, and now newer fiber connections.

But others can also build that plumbing.

NYC Mesh is a community-owned and managed internet network committed to creating a more equitable internet by connecting all New Yorkers to high-speed, affordable broadband. To achieve this, NYC Mesh volunteers have collectively built the plumbing needed to take the internet from the “backbone” to the surface, and are now using newly inexpensive wireless radios to move it from rooftop to rooftop, window sill to window sill, to create fast and free community-run wireless networks.

A few years ago NYC Mesh was relatively slow, but thanks to the massive improvements in inexpensive radio technologies, they can now offer speeds comparable to traditional commercial offerings.

So what does that mean? Instead of paying $80/month ($960/year) or more to your cable company, you could connect to NYC Mesh with a $100 radio antenna and get free internet. They request donations of $20/month ($340/year) to keep the shared network running and to help connect the nearly 30% of New Yorkers currently without an internet connection at home. With that donation, subscribers still be saving over $500/year while helping to grow the physical and social infrastructure of a new way to connect online.

There is, of course, a catch -- at least for now. You can only access NYC Mesh if you can point a radio at one of their radios, and their radios currently cover only a small fraction of the city: mostly the east side of lower Manhattan, Chinatown, Williamsburg, Bedford Stuyvesant, Bushwick, Brownsville, Sunset Park, South Slope, Park Slope, Red Hook, Ridewood, and parts of Crown Heights. And even if you live in those neighborhoods, unless you can get a radio on your roof, you might not be able to connect. But the network is constantly growing as new wireless hubs come online every week, so it's likely that it’ll be easy to connect to it in the next few years if you can’t now.

What the network needs most to grow is rooftops where 5-10 foot poles and $240 radios can be placed. If more rooftops were made available, the entire city could be blanketed from the streets to the rooftop in self-organized, self-funded NYC Mesh.

nyc mesh article map 2

NYC Mesh doesn’t need government money to grow, but it could definitely use government roof tops. New York City’s government has a lot of them. If the city would make rooftop space on its nearly 4,000 public schools and libraries accessible to NYC Mesh, and/or NYCHA would allow rooftop access with agreements to connect residents, then the network could quickly grow citywide.

If New York City had a robust, community-funded, voluntarily-organized network, it would give the city and its residents a significantly stronger negotiating position when dealing with the cable companies, resulting in significant cost savings for everyone. 

Grassroots movements like NYC Mesh aren’t waiting for “the city” to act. They’re already working with individual agencies, community organizations, elected officials, and anyone else with an interest in deploying fast and free wifi to where it’s needed most. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, in collaboration with BetaNYC and (my nonprofit) Sarapis, has a demonstration of NYC Mesh technology at her office at the David Dinkins Municipal Building. Her office’s system, which I and other volunteers helped set up, is achieving gigabit speeds and beaming wifi down to City Hall Park and toward City Council and agency staff at 120 Broadway who often complain about their sluggish internet connections.

So, New Yorkers! Consider this your invitation to fast, free wifi. RSVP here.

Devin Balkind is a nonprofit executive, civic technologist, and startup advisor running for Public Advocate as the Libertarian Party nominee. On Twitter @DevinBalkind.

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Community WiFi is Already Here, Now It's Time to Expand It Thu, 12 Sep 2019 04:00:00 +0000