By Sandhya Subbarao for NY City Lens
A black van was parked outside the Forest Housing development in the Morisania part of the Bronx in late February. Inside, Wilson Rumph worked at a laptop. “I come here for free use of the high-speed Internet service,” he says, “to fill out job applications, earn some money by participating in online surveys and to buy cheap food using coupons online.”
The van, one of two digital vans owned by the New York City Housing Authority, travels around the city offering free computer and high-speed wireless access to low-income residents. The heated vans, equipped with eight computers and a printer, started operating last year, partly funded by a federal grant, as an attempt to close the digital divide in low-income neighborhoods that tend to be less wired.
During his campaign, Mayor Bill de Blasio evoked images of the two New Yorks—and in digital terms, it is indeed a tale of two cities. On February 18, when Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed Maya Wiley, a civil rights advocate, to serve as a special counsel to the mayor, he referred to the uneven access to high speed Internet that is split along income and racial lines. “To have a truly just society means economic opportunity for all,” he said. “And in this day and age, that means having access to the totality of the digital world.”
Framing broadband Internet access as an issue of equality, social justice and economic mobility, de Blasio explicitly directed Wiley to spearhead a project to ensure universal high-speed Internet access for all New Yorkers, a core issue to his agenda and one he believes must be forcefully coordinated through city hall.
In her acceptance speech, Wiley, who is the former President and founder of the Center for Social Inclusion, a non-profit organization that works to alleviate structural inequities in society,, said, “So many people in this city, even if they are lucky enough—many aren’t—to have [high speed Internet] access in the community, they can’t afford to pay for it.”
She has a point. According to a recent study published by the Brookings Institute, the bottom quintile of households in New York City earns an average income of $17,600 annually. With shelter and utilities accounting for more than 85 percent of their income per the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, these households are left with approximately $2,000 for all other living expenses. A basic broadband package from Verizon Fios, which costs roughly $70 per month, would amount to 40 percent of this amount.
Under Mayor Bloomberg in 2008, the city negotiated a deal with Verizon to be the additional provider of cable television service throughout the city in return for increasing the rate it paid to the city. Verizon agreed to provide broadband service using fiber optic cable to all residents by June 2014. Until that time, New Yorkers were forced to rely on cable providers, Time Warner and Cablevision in different parts of the city.
A spokesman for Verizon said it is “on pace” to meet the obligations called for in its franchise agreement to run an all-fiber network throughout the streets of the five boroughs, but he added that urban environments can be challenging as building owners need to give Verizon permission to deploy Fios in their buildings.
During his mayoral campaign, then public advocate de Blasio railed against the Verizon deal highlighting how areas of the city still without high-speed access coincided with low-income neighborhoods in the city.
At the press conference announcing his new counsel, Mayor de Blasio took up the issue once again. Singling out Verizon, de Blasio said that his office was not satisfied with the progress that Verizon had made in laying down fiber optic cable, and that he would use the tools of the city including regulatory, purchasing and franchising power, to ensure that his agenda for universal broadband access moves forward. “The city has lots of levers it can pull,” the mayor said.
Interestingly, the mayor did not take issue with either Time Warner, which is under threat of acquisition by Comcast, or Cablevision. Both these companies already provide cable services in areas of New York City and the mayor could have leaned on them to provide broadband services for their constituents, but chose not to.
Also, Verizon and the Communication Workers of America union have been locked in a series of disputes over pension and wage increases. The union was an early supporter of de Blasio’s mayoral campaign and its political director, Bob Master, is de Blasio’s longtime friend and Park Slope neighbor.
Meanwhile, Google has announced that it will be expanding its Google Fiber project to 34 cities across the country. The company will announce which cities will qualify by the year’s end. If New York is on Google’s list, competition will likely drive down the cost of broadband access, say experts, and provide residents, like William Rumph, a new means by which to access the Internet.