Why Mayor de Blasio’s Broadband Push Needs to Go Further—and Faster

August 27, 2015

On July 16, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a new initiative to bring free broadband service to 16,000 New Yorkers living in five public housing developments in the boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. In partnership with President Obama’s ConnectHome initiative, the de Blasio administration has committed an investment of up to $10 million dollars for five New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) developments. Earlier this year they pledged $70 million to provide free and low-cost internet service for low-income communities. They will start with a demonstration project in the NYCHA’s Queensbridge North and South Houses, which together make up the largest public housing development in the nation.

This is a groundbreaking and forward-thinking policy and one for which Moustafa  Elshaabiny and I advocated in 10 Ideas for Equal Justice, an undergraduate policy journal published by the Roosevelt Institute. We found that low-income New Yorkers find it difficult to access job opportunities, information resources, and vital social communications such as email and Facebook. They rely on public services such as libraries or a number of NYCHA- and nonprofit-run programs, such as Broadband Technology Opportunities Program and Digital Vans, to obtain Internet access. However, these services are usually time-limited or temporary and are often only available from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m, directly conflicting with the less-than-flexible work schedules of low-income residents. Therefore we called on the NYCHA to mandate that Internet service be provided for all residents of NYCHA Housing Developments via the Housing Quality Standards being implemented by the de Blasio administration.

De Blasio’s policy aims to bring “Internet service of at least 25 Mbps [Megabits per second] for all residents” to the five targeted developments. His administration is setting the minimum according to the FCC Broadband Speed Benchmark. While this is an ambitious goal for a community that previously had no broadband access, it is not enough. It is important to note that there is no clarification as to whether the 25 Mbps is per resident or per household. Furthermore, this minimum service is far below the city’s average of 56 Mbps. While de Blasio stated that residents can pay for faster speeds, this undermines his goal of promoting internet equity at a minimum or free cost to low-income residents. In fact, de Blasio has emphasized that low-income residents cannot afford even a basic home broadband plan, hence his plan to provide it for free. It seems counterintuitive to suggest they can choose to pay for an upgrade.

In my 10 Ideas entry, we called on the NYCHA to collaborate with the New York City Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications to determine the appropriate bandwidth requirement.Tenants would have the opportunity to directly communicate their digital needs, such as daily hours needed for online homework, to NYCHA. NYCHA can also hold open forums or conduct surveys to better understand tenant’s broadband width need.  This method would be superior to that currently being used by the de Blasio administration, as it would allow residents to determine what bandwidth actually meets their needs.

Another concern with the plan laid out by the de Blasio administration is that although Sprint is named as the provider, the specifics of the contract have not yet been made clear. As a result, we don’t know how the city plans to finance the continuous service cost, or how it will insure that Sprint maintains the broadband infrastructure and services. The contract should incorporate safeguards against broadband service deterioration and regulations that encourage keeping up to date with the latest broadband services demand.

In the modern age, internet access is the great equalizer. Yet the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications reported that 36 percent of households below the poverty line do not have Internet access at home. Our city leaders now recognize that this contributes to a “homework gap” and economic immobility, as low-income residents rely on limited public services for job searches and educational resources. In other words, the internet is a critical service, not a luxury. We must recognize as a society that we cannot address inequality without first bridging this digital divide.

Matt Lazo is the Policy Change coordinator for Roosevelt @ CCNY and a 10 Ideas author. Robert Godfried is a member of Roosevelt @ Columbia and Roosevelt’s 2015 Summer Institute.