How NYC will connect millions of people to the Internet

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In late October, New York City announced it would invest $ 157 million over the next 36 months to build open access public broadband infrastructure. The goal is to ensure that 1.6 million New Yorkers have access to affordable Internet service.

The announcement builds on the city’s Internet master plan, the first effort by a major U.S. city to develop a strategy for providing equitable Internet access to all of its residents. The plan has already made progress in providing affordable internet access to its social housing residents. And it proves that small community Internet providers are powerful partners in doing this.

“The goal was not just to quickly connect NYCHA residents, but to change the ISP [internet service provider] long-term market, ”Aaron Meyerson, the city’s deputy chief technology officer – Broadband, told Next City in an email. “This was necessary because for decades internet infrastructure just wasn’t built in low-income neighborhoods.”

The city published its Internet master plan in January 2020 to bridge a digital divide that would soon be exposed by the pandemic: nearly a third of households did not have a high-speed Internet connection at home and more than 1, 5 million New Yorkers have neither. a mobile connection or a broadband connection at home. The plan describes a variety of public / private partnerships that could gradually develop universal broadband access.

For the first phase of implementation, the Mayor’s Office of the CTO partnered with the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) and the NYC Economic Development Corporation to solicit ideas for delivering broadband. affordable to NYCHA residents. This was followed by a larger request for proposals, released this spring, to bring affordable broadband to 69 neighborhoods identified by the city’s Racial Inclusion and Equity Task Force, which includes more than 200 000 NYCHA residents.

Between June 2020 and July 2021, the city hired six vendors to begin installing low-cost internet connectivity options in NYCHA buildings. These providers are on track to serve 40,000 residents in 18 developments by the end of the year, according to the mayor’s office of the chief technology officer.

The work is a growing priority to integrate affordable broadband into public housing and low-income communities of color, according to Danny Fuchs, managing partner of HR&A Advisors who helped design the Internet master plan. Last March, Next City reported that the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development passed guidelines stating that all new affordable housing using city funds must provide free high-speed internet access. charges for tenants. Across New York State, HR&A is working with the New York State Affordable Housing Association to develop a “broadband affordable housing initiative,” says Fuchs.

In New York City, the Internet Master Plan has provided a “level playing field” for small providers, Fuchs points out, and these providers have started to create new models of inclusive and accessible broadband for residents of affordable housing.

NYC Mesh is a collective of volunteers who have been building an open community Wi-Fi network across the city since 2012. BlocPower is a Brooklyn-based green energy provider that takes a community approach and environmental justice. (The company also helped found People’s Choice, a cooperative ISP formed by workers who went on strike against Spectrum.) Both were selected by the city to begin the NYCHA facility.

This spring, NYC Mesh finalized the installation of free community Wi-Fi in the backyard of NYCHA’s 303 Vernon Avenue in Brooklyn. “It was kind of a test balloon and it worked really well,” says Rob Johnson, NYC Mesh installation manager. During this fall, the yard received between 500 and 1,000 device connections – “I would say more people than average are connected compared to our other public Wi-Fi points.”

NYC Mesh is gearing up for a second installation in the South Bronx – located on the rooftop of the development to allow access to the interior of tenants’ apartments and the surrounding community. They also hope to install a similar service at 303 Vernon to increase access beyond the courtyard of the building.

“We’ve been saying for some time that the type of service we’re building is particularly beneficial for social housing as it was built in New York City – those tall buildings in the middle of fairly short buildings,” says Johnson. These tall buildings are perfect for NYC Mesh to install “nodes”, wireless routers mounted on rooftops and balconies, which connect to other nodes to form a larger community Wi-Fi network.

BlocPower is installing broadband access at three NYCHA developments in the Bronx, which residents can use in shared spaces and inside their apartments. “We are finalizing our move to Melrose Houses, where thousands of residents will have an inexpensive alternative to Internet access,” says Keith Kinch, CEO of BlocPower. The next two developments will be equipped by the beginning of next year.

Both organizations hope this early work will result in a deeper relationship with NYCHA tenants, including job pipelines. “We have Melrose residents installing wi-fi in Melrose,” Kinch said of BlocPower. “We will have 100 more people working during the winter and we are excited to hire people who live in the neighborhood and in the buildings. As NYC Mesh works to grow out of a small, voluntary nonprofit organization, it hopes to recruit and hire NYCHA residents to be part of the growing organization.

Even though the groundwork for NYC’s master plan has been laid, advocates like NYC Mesh’s Johnson believe he could do more at a faster pace. “For the amount of effort and the amount of money on the table, there aren’t a lot of people connected,” he says. NYC Mesh’s vision also goes well beyond affordable Wi-Fi networks for individual buildings: “We would like to see the Internet transformed into a common resource or a public good, much like streetlights where no one pays for streetlights. individual but we all benefit from them. ”

Johnson is still happy that the city has a “guiding framework” to move the work forward. This latest $ 157 million investment will provide affordable connectivity options to an additional 70,000 NYCHA residents and 150,000 residents of surrounding communities by early 2022.

Work is expected to ramp up statewide and nationwide, with $ 65 billion in broadband funding designated in the federal government’s infrastructure bill. “New York City is proving that deploying broadband enables the creation of new social infrastructure and the empowerment of existing social infrastructure,” says Fuchs, “ultimately creating new neighborhood-wide economies.

Emily Nonko is a Brooklyn, New York-based reporter who writes about real estate, architecture, urban planning, and design. His work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Magazine, Curbed, and other publications.

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