City officials are directing People’s Choice Communications, a small internet service cooperative formed by striking Spectrum workers, to dismantle network equipment in a Bronx NYCHA development barely a year after it was installed as part of the now-defunct Internet Master Plan. The switch will affect more than 400 subscribers, PCC said.
In a statement, City Hall spokesperson Jonah Allon said the change was due to a “legal dispute between existing internet service providers” at the Melrose Houses, a 1,000-plus unit NYCHA complex in the South Bronx. PCC had subcontracted with Bloc Power, one of the vendors chosen for the Internet Master Plan, to wire up the development. In emails reviewed by Gothamist, city officials said they want tenants of the Melrose Houses to instead get internet access through Big Apple Connect, a program spearheaded by Mayor Eric Adams’s new Office of Technology and Innovation to close the digital divide for NYCHA residents. The initiative relies on internet giants Altice and Charter and will cost the city $90 million over the course of three years, city officials said in September.
PCC’s presence in the Bronx NYCHA development is a relic of the previous de Blasio administration. Under his Internet Master Plan, launched in 2020, small, local providers connected tens of thousands of NYCHA residents to cheap or free high-speed internet. It was an attempt to close the connectivity gap in New York City, where as of 2020, about 1.5 million people lacked both at-home Wi-Fi and mobile internet.
The Internet Master Plan stalled after power transferred to Adams. The project was put on hold this past summer and quietly canceled just after Thanksgiving. Its partial replacement, Big Apple Connect, would provide free Wi-Fi to up to 300,000 NYCHA residents over the course of three years.
The decision about the Melrose Houses is a departure from the city tech agency’s previously stated plans.
But it’s not clear who would pay Altice and Charter Communications once the three-year program runs its course — the city or NYCHA residents. The providers are already established in NYCHA developments, which makes installation convenient, but they’ve gotten in trouble before for not providing New Yorkers with the high-speed service they’d promised.
Local lawmakers have also criticized the initiative's $90 million price tag, particularly when the federal government’s Affordable Connectivity Program already covers up to $30 in internet costs each month for low-income households at no cost to the city. (Officials at the OTI noted that Big Apple Connect recipients can use the federal stipend to cover their mobile phone bills instead.)
The decision about the Melrose Houses is a departure from the city tech agency’s previously stated plans. OTI officials told Gothamist back in December that the small, local service providers tapped for the early stages of the canceled Internet Master Plan could keep serving the NYCHA developments where they’d already installed equipment.
Troy Walcott, president of People’s Choice Communications, expressed confusion at the pivot.
“Why take out a system that’s already in place? Why take away the choice?” he said. “To see [the city] just reverse direction is kind of mind-boggling.”
Bloc Power announced that PCC technicians had installed the network equipment at the Melrose Houses in November 2021. The Wi-Fi is free for residents enrolled in the Affordable Connectivity Program.
On top of Big Apple Connect, the city is also offering free broadband to 650 Manhattan and Bronx residents who receive housing choice vouchers, Adams announced in his State of the City speech late last month. GCN reported that a selection of buildings in those boroughs will get hooked up to a wireless mesh network as part of the newly announced pilot program.
City Hall’s Allon said the city moved quickly to keep Melrose residents connected to the internet.
“We remain committed to programs that increase access to fast and reliable internet for NYCHA’s families," he added.
But in messages to PCC workers, shared with Gothamist by Walcott, Melrose House residents expressed their dismay at the switch.
“You can't do anything at all these days without having internet access,” one tenant wrote, imploring NYCHA to “stop the nonsense and give us back our internet."
This headline has been updated to clarify the city's explanation behind the change in internet providers.