An ambitious plan to bring affordable high-speed internet to millions of people across New York City has been put on pause, leaving the poorest New Yorkers hanging while the Adams administration decides whether to proceed.

The Internet Master Plan, which was announced in January 2020 by former Mayor Bill de Blasio, was designed to help more than 1.5 million city residents who do not have any kind of internet access. It also aimed to bring more competition to areas with only one internet provider. Experts and other politicians praised the plan at the time, and an early pilot brought affordable broadband to 45,000 residents of New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) buildings.

But at a City Council technology committee hearing in mid-May, the city's new Chief Technology Officer Matthew Fraser said the program is being re-evaluated.

And the next phase of the project — a $157 million effort that would build out public broadband infrastructure — is yet to launch. That’s despite the city drawing up contracts with internet service providers, according to officials at the Office of Technology and Innovation.

“Eleven service providers, many minority-owned, are ready and waiting to lay the necessary fiber optic cables for major broadband expansion,” said Danny Fuchs, managing partner at HR&A Advisors, which worked on the Internet Master Plan.

The delay is partially due to the mayoral transition and a blame game. The public servants most involved in the plan’s creation exited with de Blasio, but two of the plan’s architects say it was well thought through when they handed it over to the Adams administration. But Fraser claims the project has major issues thanks to poor communication between his predecessors. The new administration must give its approval of the plan before the internet companies can start laying even a foot of fiber optic cable.

“Anything that moves forward from this point, it’s this administration’s burden,” Fraser told lawmakers at the City Council budget hearing. “We’re in the process of unpacking every component of the [plan] and deciding what’s the best way to move forward.”

Underserved and underconnected

Most New Yorkers use mobile internet — 4G and 5G — while out and about and then turn to Wi-Fi at home.

But about 3.4 million New York City residents are missing at least one of these connections, according to data analyzed by the Internet Master Plan’s creators. About 1.5 million have neither home nor mobile internet access. The poorest New Yorkers are the most disconnected: nearly half of city households below the poverty line lack a Wi-Fi connection at home.

And while Manhattan is covered by multiple internet service providers, according to the plan’s authors, the other boroughs are served by one or two, which can be prohibitively expensive. The fastest broadband connections are limited to Manhattan, too. Wide swaths of Brooklyn and Queens have no access to fiber optic internet, meaning it takes longer for them to do homework, sign up for city services, reach essential websites such as their health care providers, read digital news or otherwise stay informed.

Internet experts and advocates told Gothamist last summer that the largest internet service providers favor higher-income neighborhoods. In 2017, city officials even sued Verizon, one of the boroughs' major providers, for not expanding its fiber optic infrastructure as it had promised.

Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office.

The Internet Master Plan entered this ruckus in January 2020. Spearheaded by then-CTO John Paul Farmer, it proposed teaming up with local businesses to extend fiber optic infrastructure to underserved neighborhoods and give New Yorkers the choice of multiple internet service providers. The city would offer up utility poles, rooftops and other city real estate for the companies to use for construction. The broader range of service and wealth of new providers could save New Yorkers up to $40 per month, the plan’s authors projected, and would bring affordable internet access to as many as 1.2 million households.

Lawmakers and experts alike praised the plan for its focus on equity and affordability.

“They did just about everything right,” said Jonathan Reichental, a former public servant who runs a technology consulting firm and teaches at the University of San Francisco’s School of Management. “They really put all their energy into it. And once the mayor was behind it, it got some really good momentum.”

But, Reichental added, “there’s an awful lot of master plans that are sitting on shelves that never amounted to anything.”

A pandemic, a pilot and personnel changes

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed and exacerbated preexisting inequities in internet access. Underconnected families struggled to access services and their children risked falling behind in virtual school.

In summer 2020, de Blasio promised to dedicate $157 million, including a large chunk of funds diverted from the police department, to build municipal broadband infrastructure in underserved neighborhoods. The city also teamed up with six internet service providers to bring affordable internet access to 45,000 residents of New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) buildings.

Current mayor and then-Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams praised the broadband expansion.

“A 21st century city deserves a 21st century infrastructure, and we must be laser-focused on delivering universal broadband to all five boroughs and closing the digital divide as soon as possible,” he said in a statement in May 2021.

That fall, the de Blasio administration announced it had picked the companies that would get New Yorkers connected to affordable broadband. A number were local businesses owned or led by women and people of color — a stark contrast to Verizon, Spectrum and Altice, the massive internet service providers that dominate much of the city.

I was thrilled. I was all in.

Clayton Banks, founder and CEO of Silicon Harlem

“I was thrilled. I was all in,” said Clayton Banks, founder and CEO of Silicon Harlem, a local internet service provider that also teaches digital literacy. His company was chosen to bring internet access to 28 additional NYCHA developments, many of them in upper Manhattan.

For Banks, the award was the culmination of his life’s work. He has been obsessed with closing the digital divide since the 1990s.

“It’s no longer a commodity, it’s a resource,” Banks said of internet access. “If we want to be the greatest city in the world, which we claim we are, everyone has to be connected.”

But before work could begin, the Mayor’s Office of the CTO underwent several changes. John Paul Farmer departed with the de Blasio administration, as did other key figures who worked on or advocated for the Internet Master Plan.

In the first month of his administration, Mayor Eric Adams reorganized a handful of disparate technology-related city agencies, including the Department of Information and Technology (DoITT), into the newly created Office of Technology and Innovation. It is helmed by CTO Matthew Fraser, formerly deputy commissioner of IT at the NYPD.

Months passed, and the vendors chosen by the city still hadn’t been given the go-ahead to start their work.

“We were all giddy and excited and ready, and then we found out they may be going a different way and things were on hold,” Banks said. “It’s a real hit in the gut.”

Fractured by nature

At the May budget hearing, Fraser said the plan was “under review” to ensure it didn’t call for new broadband infrastructure in places where it was already present. He chalked the delay up to the “fractured nature” of the city’s technology agencies prior to the reorganization.

“We had two entities that didn’t really collaborate towards this initiative,” he said, referring to DoITT and the Office of the CTO. (DoITT is credited in the Internet Master Plan’s Acknowledgements section.) Fraser added that they wanted to check the plan carefully before committing such a large sum of money.

“Let's make sure that, before we sign on this, we know where everything is going and that it's in the city's best interest,” he said. He added that broadband access is “one of the most important priorities” to the city and that his office would continue working to bring affordable internet access to NYCHA developments.

Greta Byrum is the former co-director of the New School’s Digital Equity Lab, which worked on the Internet Master Plan. Her other co-director, former New York City mayoral candidate Maya Wiley, also worked on the city’s lawsuit against Verizon. Byrum said the plan was “years in the making” and included exhaustive research on New Yorkers’ internet habits as well as detailed economic and technical calculations.

“A lot of careful thought and time and effort — and funding, frankly — has gone into the project,” she said. “I don’t know why we would go back to the drawing board before we try and do something designed with equity at its center.”

A lot of careful thought and time and effort — and funding, frankly — has gone into the project.

Greta Byrum, former co-director of New School’s Digital Equity Lab

Ray Legendre, a spokesperson with the Office of Technology and Innovation, acknowledged the importance of closing the digital divide and said the office was focusing on “more near-term solutions” while the Internet Master Plan is being reevaluated. He added that more would be known about the future of the plan “in the coming months.”

The city is making some strides towards bridging the connectivity gap. New York City’s family shelters are now all connected to Wi-Fi as part of an April 2021 settlement for a class-action lawsuit against the city. And LinkNYC creator CityBridge will begin installing 3-story poles with 5G capability this summer.

There are more forward-thinking options, too. New York Public Library members can try out free home Wi-Fi through the Citizens Broadband Radio Service. And NYC Mesh offers “community-owned internet” to residents in reach of their network.

Low-income New Yorkers can also receive discounts on their internet service through the Affordable Connectivity Program.

The first step in the process? Apply (or print out an application) online.