In what is one of the most prominent financial commitments that an American city government has made toward universal broadband, the De Blasio administration is committing $70 million to bring affordable high-speed Internet to city residents.
Even though cities like New York and San Francisco are at the epicenter of the country’s burgeoning tech scenes, an astounding share of residents still lack access to the Internet. In New York, about one-fifth of the city’s households have no Internet connection and among the poorest families, that number jumps to 36 percent. Similarly in San Francisco, about 100,000 of the city’s roughly 850,000 residents don’t have Internet and those disparities often fall along racial lines with African-Americans and Latinos having the poorest levels of access.
As you might guess, this could have long-term impacts on how children learn how to use technology or how working-age residents get access to jobs, which are now often listed purely online. That has implications for social mobility and earnings.
When De Blasio was elected, he started recruiting long-time policy experts in universal broadband like Josh Breitbart, who worked on access for several years at the Open Technology Institute.
Now they’re laying out a plan and putting down a $70 million financial commitment over 10 years to make universal affordable broadband a reality — with most of that money being spent in the first two to three years.
“Broadband is no longer a luxury – it’s as central to education, jobs, businesses and our civic life as water and electricity,” said Maya Wiley, who serves as counsel to the mayor. “For the first time in the history of the City, broadband is in the capital budget.”
The way this plan will work is that $25 million will go toward new wireless corridors, which will deliver free or low-cost access to 20,000 low-income households. Another $7.5 million will go to upgrading or expanding at least five existing wireless corridors. Then $1.6 million in state funds will focus on broadband around industrial zones for at least 500 businesses.
Some of these wireless corridors are already in operation like the Harlem free wifi zone.
Then there will be about 1,500 kiosks by 2017. They are often repurposed phone booths that are equipped with high-speed Internet access, around all five boroughs (see the photo below). They offer up to 1 gigabit per second in speed plus free calling through a touchscreen. That model is partially advertising supported. Ultimately, there will be 7,500 of them.
New York’s move could be precedent-setting for the rest of the country. The Obama administration has generally been supportive of community-based broadband networks given that nearly 51 million Americans still can’t purchase a wired broadband
connection with download speeds of at least 25 Mbps. San Francisco made one attempt back in the mid-2000s that got killed amid tensions about whether the deal process to work with partners like Google and Earthlink was fair.
Chattanooga, Tennessee, one of the few U.S. cities that has been aggressive on community broadband, offers a low-cost service that has ultimately put pressure on Comcast to do better with a 2 Gigabit service coming later this summer.
Should New York successfully do the same, it could put the onus on privately-owned networks to better serve the city’s low-income communities. To boot, the De Blasio administration is leaving the option of a municipal network on the table.