When the New York city council held a hearing on October 13th to address the digital divide — the persistent inequities in internet access that have left millions of New Yorkers without sufficient broadband service — Felix Guzman, a member of, VOCAL-NY, had a problem.
Guzman prepared plenty of testimony to deliver, on how he had to navigate life as a homeless city resident during a pandemic with only a government-provided Lifeline cellphone to seek out housing and medical services. What he didn’t have was enough data on his phone plan to wait on hold for hours until it was his turn to speak.
“We made a request for people affected by homelessness to go first, but that didn’t happen,” says Celina Trowell, an organizer with VOCAL, who ended up reading Guzman’s testimony on his behalf. It was an ironic obstacle for a hearing about the problems of poor internet access for huge swathes of New York, but one that Trowell says is increasingly troublesome.
“My communication with our members has been drastically impacted by the fact I have no way to consistently engage with them,” says Trowell. “If their phone goes off, I can’t contact them. Because of COVID, they can’t just come to the office.”
The digital divide has been a distant rumble in city policy circles for years: Bill de Blasio has been talking about it since the start of his first term as mayor, even if actual progress has been slow. But if lack of affordable internet access can make it hard to navigate modern life in normal times, 2020 has magnified these problems. City students have been unable to log on to remote schooling, residents have had to fight through balky service to access city eviction-prevention portals or seek unemployment benefits, and patients have been unable to schedule telehealth appointments with their doctors — all for the lack of something that many city residents take for granted.
“Internet access is not some luxury commodity,” says Will Luckman, a member of Democratic Socialists of America’s Tech Action Working Group who also testified before the council. “It’s a fundamental requirement for participation in daily life.”
Complaints about terrible internet service are common for all New Yorkers, thanks to a landscape that has effectively been divvied up by a handful of large telecoms. The city Board of Estimate first decided back in 1965 to slice up the city into cable-TV franchise fiefdoms, a setup that has survived largely intact in the internet era. Today, Altice (aka Optimum) has exclusive cable rights to the Bronx and southeast Brooklyn, while Charter (aka Spectrum, formerly Time Warner) has the rest of the city; Verizon FiOS is also available in a slowly expanding patchwork of areas overlying those two. As a result, most city residents have at most one other option if they’re unhappy with their current service, and many have none at all.
Marion Appel, a resident of Manhattan’s Chinatown, says that after her Verizon DSL service went down in February — first as the result of a manhole fire, later because of permit delays amid the pandemic — she resorted to visiting subway stations just to download files. “I went to completely unsecured space to get legal documents,” she said. Eight months later, Appel is still waiting for her service to come back on. “The Verizon reps have not explicitly said so, but they have given an indication that they don’t like dealing with these tenement-style buildings where they have to crawl around to get to the backyard.”
Americans weren’t always beholden to their local cable and phone companies for internet access, notes Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative for the D.C.-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance. In the 1990s, thousands of internet service providers across the country offered dialup connections for relatively low prices, connecting via the copper wires of the phone system. The Telecommunications Act of 1996, he says, was initially designed to build on this by enabling multiple providers to use the new, faster networks that were then starting to be rolled out using higher-capacity coaxial and fiber-optic cable. It didn’t quite pan out.
“Both the Clinton and the Bush administrations dismantled that, under pressure from the big cable and telephone companies,” says Mitchell. “Most of those internet access providers went out of business, because they didn’t have access to the networks. If you have a policy that requires a company to pay $1,500 per home to get a subscriber, and it takes three to four years to earn that money back, you will not have much competition.”
The result has been a network of broadband services that are unaffordable or unavailable for a persistently high number of local households. The de Blasio administration’s Internet Master Plan, released in January of this year, cited Census data as showing that 29% of city residents have no home broadband service, and an equal number lack broadband cellphone service. And 18% of New Yorkers fall into both categories, meaning more than 1.5 million city residents have no way to access the internet at speeds sufficient to attend a Zoom class, let alone attend a council hearing.
Unsurprisingly, New Yorkers with lower incomes are more likely to lack high-speed internet access: a 2019 study by comptroller Scott Stringer’s office found that 44% of New Yorkers in poverty have no broadband connection, double the percentage of those above the poverty line. But thanks to the vagaries of where cable has and hasn’t been laid, and other geographic quirks (cellphone service is notoriously dodgy in much of the hilly Bronx, for example), certain neighborhoods have ended up as particular broadband deserts. Fully half of Chinatown and the Lower East Side lacks broadband service, followed by Hunts Point, Longwood, and Melrose in the South Bronx (48%), and Borough Park, Kensington, and Ocean Parkway in central Brooklyn (46%).
And even residing in a neighborhood with good broadband is no guarantee that you’ll be able to access it. After COVID hit, Luis Torres was relocated from the CAMBA Opportunity House shelter in Downtown Brooklyn to a hotel on Williams Avenue in Brownsville, where residents could have their own rooms for distancing purposes. But even though his new home, a former Comfort Inn, had internet connectivity, he says he was “baffled” when he found out the hotel would not make it available to homeless residents.
“They got WiFi, they’re not giving nobody the password,” Torres said. Trowell, the VOCAL organizer, said that she’s heard of shelter hotel residents paying hotel staff under the table for WiFi passwords.
Torres noted that the city has spent nearly $300 million on renting otherwise-vacant hotels to house homeless New Yorkers during the pandemic, but hasn’t asked for the hotels to allow residents access to their broadband routers. ”I find that alarming,” he said.
In response to a question about patchy internet service for homeless students, Mayor de Blasio told reporters on Monday that he had instructed the Law Department and the Department of Social Services to ensure that family homeless shelters had WiFi available. City Hall has not provided any timetable, or given any indication that it plans to expand service in hotels for adults.
Much of the city’s focus on internet access during the pandemic has prioritized schoolchildren, especially in the wake of city schools switching to online learning. In March, the de Blasio administration declared that it would provide 300,000 internet-enabled iPads for families to use at home, at a cost of $269 million. But even once the devices were provided — some students were still waiting for devices even at the start of the fall term — teachers reported that the DOE-provided tablets often dropped their internet connections, leaving them to resort to using their phones for their schoolwork.
“I’ve had kids come in from their phones and then not be able to do the full lesson because they don’t have adequate technology,” says Catie Khella, a Brooklyn public school teacher. Chromebooks, she says, are far more reliable and useful. “For students who have motor issues, using a laptop is often much more intuitive than using an iPad. Also, being on Zoom and writing a paper at the same time is a lot easier; on an iPad you have to totally switch applications, you can’t be in both at the same time,” Khella explained. But not every school has a budget to provide Chromebooks to all students who need them.
And even when students can manage learning via tablet and keep their devices connected, that’s not always all that’s needed to get things done online. “There’s an issue about other things, too, like the availability of printers, and all those kinds of peripheral things that we take for granted,” says Hunter College professor of urban planning and policy Sigmund Shipp, who is helping conduct a survey of internet access problems among the school’s students that he hopes will be completed by January.
In the past, students and other New Yorkers could go to a library if they needed to print or scan a document, or to connect to WiFi to, say, download a large file. The pandemic changed all that. “There were no longer libraries, there were no longer internet cafes, there was no longer a McDonald’s,” Trowell explained. When homeless New Yorkers were forced out of subways in the spring, she notes, they lost not only a place to sleep, but a place to access the internet via subway WiFi. Even the city’s much-ballyhooed LinkNYC WiFi kiosks became off-limits to many, as outdoor dining tents often took up the space that people needed to access them.
LinkNYC is just one of the many attempts by city government to bridge the digital divide that have yielded disappointing results. In 2008, the Bloomberg administration signed a deal with Verizon in which the company promised to bring FiOS service to “each and every borough, neighborhood, boulevard, avenue and street” in the city by 2014. As it turned out, though, the franchise agreement only required Verizon to “pass” every building with FiOS cable; actually running wires from the trunk cable to people’s homes was optional. In 2017, with nearly a third of city households (and an unknown number of city businesses) still lacking FiOS, the city filed suit to rectify the situation; but even though Verizon’s franchise to operate in the city expired this July, the city has given no indication that it plans to seek to penalize the company or pull its license.
In fact, the city’s Internet Master Plan for expanding access relies heavily on existing telecom companies to help provide the infrastructure — which then would be opened up at last for ‘90s-style competition. The de Blasio administration has estimated that providing broadband access to all who need it would cost a total of $2.1 billion, but hopes to save money by leveraging existing city assets: city building rooftops that can host new 5G cell towers, FDNY call boxes with built-in high-speed wiring, bus shelters that can be retrofitted with WiFi hotspots, and so on. The city would provide “seed investment,” then rely on private companies to help build out new fiber-optic lines and cell towers, and license its operations and maintenance to those private companies. How much all this would eventually cost the public, and how much would be underwritten by private internet companies slavering for a cut of the city’s broadband market, is anyone’s guess.
5G, in particular, is a highly unknown unknown, either the coming cure-all for the digital divide or an overhyped sham, depending on who you ask. As promising as it sounds to be able to stream high-bandwidth data directly through the air, there remain many technological obstacles with 5G, which isn’t a single broadcast band, but multiple ones; the frequency range with the broadest reach isn’t much faster than 4G, while the one that is the fastest has limited range. That means that telecom companies will need more cell towers — and lots of them — to carry the fastest service into every corner of the city.
The city’s current plan is to encourage the addition of both 5G and fiber service, each on an “open access” basis that would be accessible to all providers. “We have to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time,” city chief technology officer John Paul Farmer, a former Microsoft executive hired by de Blasio last year, tells Gothamist. It’s a goal, he says, that can be achieved by providing just enough city resources into broadband infrastructure that it will lure in more private companies, creating “a more competitive market that produces more low-cost, high-quality options for consumers.”
Mitchell, at least, is hopeful, calling New York’s plan “the best of any I’ve seen,” though he acknowledges that that’s a low bar. “Enabling a lot of entrepreneurs to build new networks by making it so you don’t have to build all the way across your borough—you only have to build a block or two to get to a piece of fiber that will offer you affordable backhaul,” he said, referring to the trunk lines that carry internet service to a neighborhood. Under the city’s plan, these would theoretically be accessible to any ISP for a fee.
This, some city critics say, is an unwarranted leap of faith. As the city’s broadband history shows — not to mention that FiOS lawsuit — private telecoms are traditionally in no hurry to spend money in neighborhoods that don’t offer the most profits. And even if offering up building rooftops for more 5G towers does make a few more private ISPs bloom, Luckman says, “that’s not going to get people living in homeless shelters internet access. Not as long as someone needs to be making a profit off this stuff.”
It’s one reason that Luckman would rather see the city build out its own public broadband network, something that Barcelona has offered for more than a decade. New York even has experience laying its own cable, he notes, with the NYPD in particular operating the third-largest fiber optic network in the city. (Asked about the possibility of a public broadband system, Farmer replied, “The City views the ideal solution to broadband investment as a partnership between the public and private sector.”)
Cities’ reluctance to pursue municipally run networks can be traced back to the same causes that allowed big telecoms to acquire monopoly power over broadband markets in the first place: power and money. In a typical city, it averages about $1,000 per person to build new fiber cable, says Mitchell, meaning “in New York, it would probably be on the order of 7 to 10 billion dollars to build a new fiber network to connect everyone. Elected officials don’t want to announce those kinds of costs — especially when the cable and telephone companies will immediately spend more money to oppose them than that elected official has ever seen before.”
Even if private telecoms are here to stay, some say the city could be doing more to ensure that increased access is a part of franchising agreements and other city policies, so that broadband-for-all is more than just a slogan.
“The same way we can set up hubs for people to sit and have dinner outside, why don’t we have hubs for internet for people who are unhoused?” says Trowell. “Why don’t the libraries have outdoor stations where people can sit and have access to the internet? In the long term, we need to consider how to make internet access a public utility for all.”