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A year ago, who would have anticipated that high-flying tech firms would be turning to public housing for their salvation? That, however, is precisely what's happening as the New York City Housing Authority prepares to consider proposals for an ambitious project: the wiring of all 180,000 of the city's public housing units.

A city effort to upgrade building intercoms has snowballed to include the creation of an entire telecommunications infrastructure, including wiring for phone, cable television and high-speed internet access. Some of the industry's major players, including IBM, Cisco, Netcom and Verizon, showed up to a proposer's conference in July.

The contract, which could be awarded to one company or apportioned to a variety of developers, calls for the installation of telecommunications “backbones” in each of NYCHA's 2,400 buildings, which would be linked together as part of larger local and neighborhood hubs. The developers would then make their investment back by leasing that infrastructure to service providers, such as Time Warner Cable and Verizon. They must complete the wiring within seven years, and hire and train residents to work on installing the system.

While it clearly wants tenants to use the new wiring, NYCHA says that it is not requiring service providers to lower their fees to household subscribers. “We will not set the rates. That's something that's totally out of our purview,” said Howard Marder, NYCHA's director of communications. At least one bidder, however, says that it's contemplating bulk discounts.

For many of the tech companies, the proposal comes at a crucial time. Since last August, the two main Standard and Poor's telecommunications indices have fallen 61 and 42 percent. Much of the dot-com-connected business these companies had anticipated failed to materialize, leaving them desperate for new clients.

While there have been a number of public and private initiatives designed to get low-income people onto the internet, they are still struggling to break down the “digital divide.” A Department of Commerce survey last fall found that only 13 percent of households earning less than $15,000 a year–slightly above the average for public housing residents–had access to the internet.

Several projects similar to NYCHA's are already underway, albeit on a smaller scale. In 1999, IBM teamed with an Oakland, California, ACORN affiliate to rewire a 289-unit complex. The partnership, which involved $3.1 million from IBM, emphasizes teaching residents what the technology can do for them. “If they're going to wire the buildings, and then step into it, they've already failed,” said Calvin Peterson, an SBC DataCom consultant who worked on the Oakland project. “You can't just walk in, drop some stuff off, and say you did your job. You have to get in there and get involved.”

Gerry Lamb, a member of NYCHA's Council of Presidents and a 36-year veteran of public housing, is ready to get wired. “What our residents want is the service,” she said. “Ninety-nine percent of the folks who live in public housing, if there was a charge, would pay to have access to the internet. If the Housing Authority is about to contract with folks who can get us hooked up and do it properly, we're all for it.”

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