Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently took on a problem that annoys a growing number of New Yorkers. Many new cell phones take photographs, offer games and play music, but do not make calls -- at least not in numerous places throughout the city. "Cell phone 'dead spots' are frustrating and too common," the mayor announced. The city's solution: When New Yorkers find these dead spot zones, they should dial 311 to report them. And then what? "This program will undoubtedly help the industry improve service and help consumers make more informed purchasing decisions," the mayor said.
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And this in a nutshell is the dilemma facing the city. If New York has its most tech-savvy mayor ever -- an entrepreneur who made billions providing technology to businesses and whose pet projects at City Hall include tech innovations such as the 311 telephone number for non-emergencies -- one public official can only do so much. The city has so far been better at identifying local tech problems than in solving them.
But these problems, some say, are more than just an inconvenience; solving them is essential if New York City is to remain a capital of communications and commerce. Will the typical New York City workplace of the 21st century be like the graceful high-tech offices of Steven Spielberg's movie "Minority Report," where Tom Cruise waves his hands in the air and is instantly connected to an information superhighway? Or will it be more like Terry Gilliam's 1985 film "Brazil," where a house fly can plunge the whole makeshift technology and telecommunications system into chaos?
WHAT TODAY'S OFFICES NEED
The August 14, 2003, blackout dramatized many of the flaws in New York's communications systems. The Internet was useless. Cell phone providers could not handle the increased demand for calls and, as the blackout continued, service deteriorated further. Many office phone systems, dependent upon electricity, also failed to function.
But it does not take an extraordinary event like a blackout to point out the problems that businesses face. According to a report by the Center for an Urban Future, New York has become "one of the worst environments for entrepreneurs and growing firms," ranking at the bottom of national lists. One reason for this is its poor telecommunications technology. Meanwhile, advances in technology that enable people to "telecommute" and easily work with people hundreds of miles away make it less essential for many businesses to stay in New York. Experts agree that faced with such challenges, New York will lose businesses, jobs and money if things don't change.
Of course, the office of the future does exist right now in New York. Employees in many offices communicate almost entirely by computer, e-mailing colleagues, customers and contractors around the world, and checking stock prices, political trends and industry data on the Internet. Large businesses host their own Web sites, set up wireless networks in their offices, use voice-over-Internet technologies to cut phone costs and hold online conferences. Orders come in over the Internet, and customers track the status of shipments by computer.
An increasing number of people spend much of their business day away from a traditional office, working on portable devices such as laptops, personal digital assistants and cell phones. A salesperson may visit a client and then e-mail a report on the meeting while sitting in a nearby cafe or park. An electrician at a building site needs to check on the availability of a part; the site has no phone service yet, making him completely dependent on his cell phone. Every day, people need to connect to files, programs, databases and the Internet from their apartments, their local park or even Yankee Stadium.
Such new technologies increase efficiency and cut costs. But many businesses outside midtown and lower Manhattan cannot take advantage of them, because of aging or outmoded wires and cables, or because they simply are not available anywhere but the two major business districts.
HIGH SPEED INTERNET ACCESS
Just about anyone with a telephone and a computer can get access to the Internet. But, as anyone who uses a dial-up system at home knows, access can be painfully slow and tie up telephone lines.
That is why many businesses are looking to "broadband," which is a high-speed connection to the Internet such as a digital subscriber line or DSL (which uses the phone lines), or cable-modem (which sometimes shares the wire used for cable television). Unlike dial-up, broadband is always on, so there is no connecting and disconnecting.
Any business that makes or takes orders for merchandise can benefit from broadband. Conducting such transactions by dial-up Internet or telephone can be slow and frustrating as screens can freeze and information can be lost.
"Broadband is critical for economic development and small business growth across the board, not just in high-tech industries," says Jonathan Bowles, research director at the Center for an Urban Future, who has been interviewing small businesses on the importance of broadband for a report to be released next month.
The problem is that broadband is not widely available in the city outside of midtown and lower Manhattan.
For example, cable DSL and cable modem are extremely difficult to get in Brooklyn, largely because providers consider it a low income area, City Councilmember Gale Brewer, chair of the council's technology committee, told Wireless Review this summer. "A year ago, a senior citizen center with a multimillion-dollar budget wanted to put in broadband, but no one wanted to go there," Brewer said. "I've worked in a lot of low-income areas in New York City, and private companies always think there's no marketplace there. We have to get this to go beyond the central business district."
Experts claim that if broadband were made available in just 50 percent of the city, it could bring in an extra $15 billion to the New York economy over the next 25 years. Providing service to 94 percent of New Yorkers could bring in $80 billion.
The lack of broadband places a heavy burden on many nonprofit groups, says Kayza Kleinman, director of the Nonprofit Helpdesk at the Jewish Community Council of Greater Coney Island. Government regulations require that many social service agencies provide services and information online, something difficult to do without high speed Internet access. As a result, many struggling organizations have felt forced to wire their buildings themselves, at a cost they cannot afford. And those are the ones lucky enough to be in an area where such wiring is possible.
Simply providing high speed Internet access is only the beginning. Even when service is available, some small businesses and nonprofits cannot afford it. While prices for most telecommunication services have been falling, broadband prices have gone up. Many organizations pay at least $400 per month so that a number of computers can be online at the same time.
The relatively high price is due largely to a lack of competition. While there are 18 broadband providers other than Verizon, most of them must lease the wires from Verizon and thus have to pay Verizon for access.
And there are different types of broadband. While all may be high speed, exactly how fast one can send and receive information may vary. Such differences present particular problems for companies that want to host Web sites and e-commerce platforms. "All broadband is not equal," says Joe Plotkin of Bway, a New York-based Internet-service provider that provides symmetrical broadband.
There are two ways for telephone companies, such as Verizon, to make high-speed Internet more readily available. They can replace the copper wires that currently run under much of New York City, with newer ones that are better able to handle massive amounts of information. Or they can upgrade to fiber optics. These cables -- strands of glass about the size of a human hair that transmit light signals -- allow Internet connections that are four times faster than broadband and could be ten times faster in the future.
But 87 percent of the city's fiber optic cables are in Manhattan business districts below 59th Street. One obstacle to expanding their reach is money. Fiber optics cost as much as $40,000 per mile to install, while wireless costs a tenth as much, according to one study.
It is a truism of work in the 21st century that many people must be accessible around the clock -- in the office or away -- and so rely on being able to use cell phones and laptop computers wherever they might be.
Key to this are "hotspots" that provide a wireless Internet connection people can use with their laptops, personal digital assistants and other devices over the airwaves. Wireless, which is comparatively cheap to set up, can bridge gaps between other services. Currently, there are hundreds of free hot spots in business and residential areas of Manhattan as well as in the outer boroughs. (See map.)
The non-profit group NYCwireless has joined with economic development groups and parks organizations to provide free Internet access in places such as Bryant Park and lower Manhattan. Verizon offers wireless to their paid broadband customers at telephone booths, and T-mobile connects Starbucks customers for a monthly fee.
The city hopes to create schools, libraries and other government buildings as wireless hotspots. But wireless is still on the cutting edge. Many people do not know that wireless sites are available, and most small businesses have not yet begun to explore how wireless can help them. And even though wireless is spreading here, it is still not as popular in New York as it is in places such as Portland, Oregon, and Orange County, California.
PLANNING FOR THE HIGH-TECH FUTURE
While there is widespread agreement on at least some of the technology the city will need for its economy to thrive in the coming decades, less agreement exists on how to achieve it. Much of the controversy involves who should pay for the improvements.
Many believe that upgrading the city's wires and cables is the job of private companies such as Verizon, Con Edison, Time Warner Cable and Cablevision that profit from providing such services. As it stands now, the companies do shoulder most of the cost and make only those improvements they feel are worthwhile for them. For example, to justify the cost of installing new cable, Verizon must believe that it will gain a significant increase in business once the cables are installed.
Others say the need for fiber optics and other improvements is so crucial to the general well being of the city that it cannot be left to the private sector alone.
In May 2003, the City Council published a report, "Network NYC" (in pdf format) which laid out a proposed long-range telecom strategy. Many of the report's recommendations involve increased planning and analysis of the city's telecommunications needs by the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications.
But the report also called on the city to use its economic clout as a major purchaser of telecommunications services to get improvements in service. New York City spends over $130 million annually on telecommunications, primarily telephone and Internet, more than any other city in the country. At least 75 percent of that goes to Verizon - with no competitive bidding. The report and the city comptroller have questioned whether the city should solicit competing bids to cut costs and perhaps exert influence on Verizon. (The company could not be reached for comment.)
The report also urges the city to make better use of existing technology. For example, it notes, the city manages franchises with a number of fiber optics companies and controls rooftops through New York that could be used for wireless. Yet, despite this, it says, "there has been little public discussion or long term strategic thinking about how the city could better organize this public and private infrastructure to encourage a truly citywide deployment of affordable, high speed networking capacity."
Because laying new fiber optic cable is so expensive, Councilmember Brewer recommends using existing fiber optics - either lines already owned by the city or leased from other owners - and combining them with wireless to create a network linking every borough but Staten Island. Brewer sees such a network helping small companies and non profits that cannot afford $400 to $1,200 a month to get high-speed Internet access from Verizon.
Another possibility involves taking old systems and putting them to new uses. The city explored the possibility of putting telecommunications equipment, including fiber optics, in space occupied by unused water pipes.
Some fiber optic cables -- called dark fiber -- were installed in the ground during the high tech boom of the 1990s. But they were then abandoned as dot.coms went bankrupt. Providing new cable to link to this unused dark fiber could be a lower-cost way of bringing fiber optics to at least some parts of the city.
As appealing as some of these ideas are, any solution is bound to be for the short-term only. In the 21st century, technology often becomes outmoded before many of us ever get to use it. And so fiber optics, broadband and hot spots could all soon be eclipsed by better, cheaper technology that has not been developed yet.
But whatever the actual technology, New York will have to stay on top of it. And that requires a vision, a plan and a way to put it into action.