One of the WiFi antennas at Washington Market Park located on the corner of Chambers Street and Greenwich Street. During the Bloomberg administration, public-private partnerships were formed to provide Wi-Fi in parks; however access is limited if you're not a customer of the company providing the service.

Photo by: Adi Talwar

One of the WiFi antennas at Washington Market Park located on the corner of Chambers Street and Greenwich Street. During the Bloomberg administration, public-private partnerships were formed to provide Wi-Fi in parks; however access is limited if you’re not a customer of the company providing the service.

Internet access in New York City is becoming a luxury. 41 and 29 percent of Black and Latino homes don’t have a computer, much less a high-speed connection. Says Simran Noor of New York City’s Center for Social Inclusion (CSI): “Between affording rent, transit and food, broadband may seem relatively low on the list of needs for low-income communities and communities of color, but in reality broadband access is a vital connector to opportunity.”

We all need it, says Noah Sullivan, a recent high-school graduate from the Lower East Side: “In a new day and age where everything is technology-based, there are going to be a lot of things that people need the Internet for, for just basic needs.” Teachers assign homework, employers receive job applications, social lives exist and appointments are made—all online. Those who can’t afford the Internet at home turn to public libraries, community centers and even McDonald’s for access or rely on mobile devices.

The power of the city to bridge the gap between need for and access to broadband and the ability of private companies and nonprofit groups to help span parts of the digital divide are being tested on several fronts.

Calling for cable

It’s not just affordability that keeps some less connected. Anthony Keith, a resident of Bushwick, would gladly pay more to upgrade his oft-slow and spotty dial-up connection, but he can’t. That’s because Verizon’s faster and more reliable fiber-optic FiOS service isn’t available there, yet. Says Keith, “They haven’t expanded yet, and I’m assuming that’s because the area has not fully been gentrified yet. I feel like they’re holding back until that happens.”

For Verizon and its New York City counterparts—like Cablevision and Time Warner—some neighborhoods offer more profits than others. But Verizon cannot play favorites; it has a franchise agreement with the city to wire the entire city with fiber optics, placing the company under the public eye.

Last year then-Public Advocate Bill de Blasio called out Verizon for neglecting the South Bronx, Upper Manhattan, Central Brooklyn and Western Queens. Verizon denied de Blasio’s claims and in response to similar concerns recently issued a press release assuring the public that, “As of the end of 2013, the company had completed network upgrades passing premises in 90 percent of the Bronx, 89 percent of Brooklyn, 94 percent of Manhattan, 90 percent of Queens and virtually the entirety of Staten Island.”

Verizon’s failure to meet its July 2014 deadline for wiring the city has also drawn public scorn. For this, Verizon blames Superstorm Sandy, which forced the company to redirect resources to rebuilding water-damaged infrastructure. According to Verizon, the citywide fiber network should be completed later this year.

The mayor has also demanded that the telecommunication giant provide more affordable service to low-income residents, though the city’s power to affect such change is unclear. Noor of CSI says, “I think the city has a little bit of leverage and power in positioning themselves to force—or not force, to have a conversation with—these large companies about what it looks like to think about public interest and public benefit.”

A city’s leverage

As Noor and others point out, the city government is one of the largest Internet users in the city. The New York City Housing Authority, for example, could use its sway to demand affordable access for low-income residents. Public schools could provide free Internet to their communities. The city can also make an impact through its allocation of funds for the ConnectNYC, Connect IBZ (Industrial Business Zone) and Rise: NYC initiatives—all of which provide grants for expanding or securing Internet access.

But beyond these powers, the city’s authority to govern Internet distribution depends in large part on how the Internet—and the infrastructure that it runs on—is classified. And that’s where it gets divisive. Is Internet a public utility that everyone has a right to? Who owns the infrastructure?

How these questions will be answered in New York City is still unclear. It has long been assumed that the fiber optic wiring laid by Verizon, Time Warner and Cablevision is owned by the companies. This ties the city’s hands, preventing it from interfering with who can use those wires, and from preventing an oligopoly of Internet providers in the city. If the Internet providers own the wires, only they’ll be able to use them, reducing competition, theoretically resulting in higher prices. And if the Internet is not a public utility, the city’s power to force Verizon and the other companies to make the fiber available to and affordable for all is limited.

Some believe the city may have more power than it thinks. A report released in May 2014 by the Public Utility Law Project and New Networks points out that in Verizon’s franchise agreement with the city, the fiber optic wires that Verizon has been laying use public-rights-of-way. In the agreement, Verizon agrees that the wires are deployed under Section 27 of the New York Transportation Corporations Law and Title II of the Communications Act. Section 27 allows Verizon to “erect, construct and maintain the necessary fixtures for its lines upon, over or under any of the public roads, streets and highways,” while Title II classification makes the wires “common carriage” telecommunication services, which must be equitably distributed, like a public utility.

Verizon gets to use these public rights of way because fiber cables carry phone calls, and all Americans are entitled to a phone landline. Not all of Verizon’s services are telecommunications that would enjoy these public rights-of-way on their own; FiOS wouldn’t.

What is more, Verizon has raised the rates of residents like Keith—who do not receive the faster service—to help fund the expansion of its fiber optics. For example, as the May report points out, in June 2009 the New York Public Service Commission approved Verizon’s request to raise rates on non-fiber customers to help fund what it called in a press release, the company’s “massive deployment of fiber optics.”

Says Bruce Kushnick, executive director of New Networks, “If de Blasio wanted to get aggressive, what he could do is say, ‘Excuse me, seniors and low-income families have been charged excess amounts to pay for this fiber optic wire.'” And if the fiber cables are Title II common carriage mechanisms, paid for by utility rate payers, “deployment should go everywhere.” And consumers should get more choice. If Title II applies, “as these networks are common carriage and customer funded, then the FCC should revisit opening the networks [to competition] immediately,” Kushnick says.

But to Verizon’s John Bonomo, this “argument is a red herring.” Yes, Verizon offers Tittle II telecom services like phone, but that has no implication for its other non-telecom services like Internet and cable. What’s more, Bonomo rejects the idea that a “public utility … doesn’t own its own facilities and must make them available to others is not correct.”

“Decades ago before fiber and other modern transmission technologies were even conceived of and when there were no choices for consumers to meet their telecommunications needs, telephone companies owned their own facilities and were generally under no obligation to make those facilities available to others providers,” we writes.

Copper cuts cause concern

While the classification of the high-speed wires is—endlessly—debated, a separate issue over infrastructure continues, one Dana Spiegel of WirelessNYC told me the city “should be scared s—less” about. Verizon is transitioning away from its copper wiring in parts of Queens and elsewhere in the city. This transition was accelerated by Sandy, which damaged large swaths of copper wiring.

Copper brings services like DSL and dial-up Internet and phone service to millions of New Yorkers. And unlike the fiber optic wires, copper is “carrier neutral.”

Bonomo says Verizon’s approach to copper replacement is driven only by the needs of the system: “Where a copper cable fails (because of a water main break, or a construction project, or due to just plain age, as a for instance) or is damaged so severely, we may replace that portion of the network with fiber. It makes only perfect sense to replace old technology with newer technology. It provides for more consistent and more reliable service for our customers.”

But there are a few reasons the retiring of copper concerns Spiegel. One, he says, Verizon has an obligation to maintain the Title II services that run on copper. Two, if copper “is shut down, then a large percentage of businesses in New York City are going to lose their sole ability to get Internet access”; Verizon’s deal with the city only obliges it to provide fiber optics to residents, not businesses. Three, it would cut out affordable services like DSL that run on copper. Four, the city would lose some of its power over the Internet, as copper is carrier neutral, and Verizon’s fiber is not.

Many people, like Keith, would love to transition from slower copper Internet services to the faster, though more expensive ones offered by fiber. But copper has its upsides: Its telephone service still works during blackouts, copper DSL is cheap, as is its telephone service. There are pros and cons to copper; a robust network might offer both systems available.

Verizon, however, argues that so long as it can provide the Title II copper services, like phone service, on its new infrastructure, then copper can be removed.

NY State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is skeptical though. This time last year he released a paper arguing that the state “should not jettison [copper] wireline service merely because Verizon’s business strategy prefers a wireless business plan….[it] should instead require that Verizon divest those portions of its New York franchise where it is no longer willing to continue providing wireline service and replace Verizon with another carrier that will provide wireline service.”

Other solutions surface

How far the city and state will—or can—go in its scrutiny of Verizon is uncertain. What is clear is that city and its residents want to do something about Internet access in The Big Apple. There are a multitude of different projects in the city to make Internet airwaves free of charge, each with unique impacts and implications.

Private initiatives include Dumbo Wi-Fi, an initiative of the Dumbo Improvement District, which provides Wi-Fi access to guests of the waterfront. Google and the Chelsea Improvement Company have partnered to offer free public Wi-Fi. In Harlem a philanthropist-funded Wi-Fi network spans ninety-five square blocks just north of Central Park. But these Wi-Fi hotspots are only accessible outdoors.

In Red Hook, a community-run project is taking a considerably different approach. There, the non-profit Red Hook Initiative (RHI) has set up an intranet or mesh where community members can communicate amongst themselves, share Internet connections, catalogue their interactions with police and more. RHI’s Tony Schloss told me, “Public Wi-Fi is not the answer to anything, really, it’s what you build around that platform that will create change and give opportunities to communities.”

RHI’s mesh network, which stayed up through Sandy, needs community participation to function. Churches and community centers serve as nodes within the mesh, connecting residents to one another and—thanks to the local Internet Service Provider Brooklyn Fiber—the Internet. Those nodes use Commotion software deployed by New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute (OTI) to emit their signals and connect to one another—creating the mesh. For Georgia Bullen of OTI, communities don’t just need Internet access—which a mesh may or may not provide—they need “infrastructure that grows with the community.” OTI has applied for grant money from the NYC Economic Development Corporation’s initiative Rise : NYC—to set up similar networks elsewhere in the city.

In June the New York, Brooklyn and Queens pubic library systems received a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to launch thousands of hot spots that can be checked out and taken home. New Yorkers are eligible to participate if they don’t have broadband Internet at home and are enrolled in a New York Public Library program, such as its after-school programs or adult learning programs. The project is a collaboration between the Knight and Ford foundations and Mozilla.

Then there’s the city itself. During the Bloomberg administration, public-private partnerships were formed to provide Wi-Fi in parks; however access is limited if you’re not a customer of the company providing the service. The city has also partnered with business development corporations to provide five “Wireless Corridors,” one for each Borough.

Now, the city has launched an initiative to convert its fleet of public payphones into public Wi-Fi hotspots. The plan will use some of the city’s existing 8,931 public payphones, supplemented by 400 new stations, to launch around 10,000 “public communication points.” These will provide 85-foot-radius free Wi-Fi spots, which will also allow the city to communicate with the public during “city-wide events.” Some of the prototypes the city has received feature augmented reality, voice and gesture controlled kiosks, and hyper-local sensors.

How these hotspots will be distributed among the five boroughs is an open question. 58.3 percent of the active public payphones are in Manhattan, 15.5 percent in Queens, 16.7 percent in Brooklyn, 8.8 percent in the Bronx and less than 1 percent on Staten Island.

Dana Spiegel of NYCwireless is critical of the initiative. “Realistically, this is something for people that are visiting the city—tourists.” Spiegel is also critical of the city’s decision to grant only one franchise contract for the hotspots. This “monopoly solution,” he says will leave the hotspots vulnerable to delays and glitches.

The contract is non-exclusive, meaning the NYC Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications, which oversees the initiative, could replace the franchisee down the road. But why not have a few companies working at once? At least four Members of the New York City Council have publicly criticized the exclusive franchise.

Spiegel wants a “carrier-neutral fiber network available in every building in New York City”—much like Santa Monica’s “City NetTM”—where the fiber optic wiring is provided to all, and on which anyone can provide competitive Internet service, lowering costs.

But the initiative does represent a positive change in how the city approaches Internet access, says Spiegel, but this is “just the beginning, and if the city doesn’t do anything else, it’s a complete and utter failure.”

Adds Noor, “Payphones aren’t going to do it all.”