New York City’s Plan to Bridge the Digital Divide with WiFi

Marisa Wong |
Encore: June 12, 2014

Reporter Rick Karr investigates New York City’s plan to provide free internet access across the city in an effort to bridge the digital divide.

For those living in public housing, internet access can be scarce. Jason Holloway, a resident of the New York City Housing Authority’s Astoria Houses, uses the NYCHA Digital Van to search for jobs and update his resume. The city’s mobile computer labs offer laptops, WiFi access and printers to those without broadband high-speed internet service – but the vans are only scheduled to visit every other week.

“[T]here’s no internet access as far as in my home or around here. A lot of these families are single mothers, you know, so they’re trying to feed a family and it’s pretty tough for the cable to stay on when you have mouths to feed,” Holloway told MetroFocus reporter Rick Karr.

Mayor de Blasio says the city needs to do better. During his keynote address at Internet Week New York, he said “We must have universal, high-speed, affordable internet access throughout this city, it’s as simple as that…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.”

The mayor’s counsel, Maya Wiley, is in charge of bringing better and cheaper internet service to the city. “We need more competition. We need more alternatives to how infrastructure gets built and delivered. We need to leverage every asset we have, including the city’s,” Wiley told Karr.

An upgrade for payphones is one of the mayor’s first steps. In 2013, the Bloomberg administration asked designers to submit proposals to reinvent New York City’s payphones. Now, Mayor de Blasio wants to use existing payphone infrastructure to enhance public broadband access. The city’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) has issued a request for proposals to retrofit 10,000 existing payphones with WiFi hardware.

“It benefits business, it benefits competition, and it benefits the public,” said Wiley.

Columbia University is one place which is seeing such benefits, since WiFi is available campus-wide. Karr used the free WiFi at Columbia to place a video call to Christopher Mitchell, the director of Community Broadband Networks Initiative.

“Low income people and especially minority populations really depend on mobile devices. So having WiFi that they can use when they’re on the go is going to be a good way of keeping their costs down. But you’re not going to see kids writing term papers on mobile devices,” said Mitchell.

Mitchell said that low-income people need better and more affordable options. “Possibly, something run by the city so that it can ensure that low-income people have access in their homes and they don’t have to go outside in order to use their devices.”

It’s a pricey proposition, but Andrew Rasiej, co-founder of NY Tech Meetup and publisher of Personal Democracy Media, believes that any improvement in internet access will benefit the city’s tech sector. “If this kind of services allow people in diverse parts of New York, particularly in the public school system, to be able to get online […] the better off New York tech is going to be,” Rasiej told Karr.

Private sector firms have until the end of the month to submit proposals to turn payphones into internet hotspots and the city hopes to have the first ones up by the end of the year.

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