New York City is the wealthiest city in the world. The total personal wealth of New York City residents is more than $3 trillion — more than most G-20 countries. With such abundance, it’s easy to assume that the city that never sleeps doesn’t suffer from the problems of high-speed internet connectivity such as rural America. However, this assumption could not be further from the truth.
In fact, the city’s poverty rate is almost twice the national average, and 45% of low-income families have no Internet access at home. We are only a few months away from 2023 – such a massive digital divide should not exist in the richest city in the world. Although the city has made efforts to get more citizens online, most efforts remain short-term solutions when long-term solutions are actually needed.
To get all residents online, city officials need to increase competition between Internet service providers. In doing so, they will not only create a fairer Big Apple, but also set an example to the rest of the nation that the internet is not a luxury but a basic human right.
One step forward, two steps back: Try to bring low-income families together
The pandemic has proven that internet access is an undeniable necessity. On March 20, 2020, all the hustle and bustle of the city went completely online. A month later, a report by the Citizens’ Committee for Children was released, showing that more than 100,000 schoolchildren were living in homes without internet access.
New York City officials were not blind to these questions, however. In January 2020, the city released its Internet Master Plan — an ambitious blueprint to close the gap in internet connectivity and get more New Yorkers online. Plans were understandably disrupted when COVID collapsed.
Meanwhile, much effort has been expended to bring disconnected students online via internet-connected iPads. However, by October of the following school year, 77,000 students were still deviceless. Today, students in New York City are required to stay home if they test positive, but for the thousands of students who still don’t have internet access, distance learning isn’t an option.
However, it is worth noting that some progress has been made in the last two years. In 2021, the city signed six companies (full disclosure, my company Flume was one of them) to connect New York City Housing Authority buildings to high-speed internet providers. This has resulted in over 40,000 residents having high-speed access where they previously did not have. All homeless shelters now offer Wi-Fi, and there are also six public libraries whose cardholders can access their Wi-Fi from the comfort of their homes within range.
Broadband blockages and how to break through them
However, progress came to a standstill in May of this year when the Internet Master Plan was put on hold. Instead, there’s a new initiative called “Big Apple Connect” with similar goals — partnering internet service providers with NYCHA buildings to connect them together. However, there is a glaring difference. ISPs in the new program include Optimum and Charter, with the possibility of Verizon joining in the future.
The six ISPs (including my company Flume) tapped under the earlier master plan were all much smaller than these behemoths. Partnering with them to bridge the digital divide is like partnering with Big Oil to solve climate change. They are largely responsible for creating the schism by holding fiber connections hostage through exclusivity clauses in contracts with local governments. Without affordable options, low-income citizens are left without them.
If high-speed Internet connections are a right for New Yorkers, then they should also be able to choose from multiple ISPs to make the right choice for their usage needs and budget constraints, but 69% of New Yorkers only have access to 2 or fewer ISPs.
In order to bring more competition to the market, we need to go back to the original plan of investing in several smaller ISPs. First, it’s a far more cost-effective choice, as smaller ISPs operate with shared infrastructure, while the larger incumbents are able to create these differences by owning the infrastructure and not opening it up to competition. More importantly, however, it is in the best interests of citizens by giving them more choices. It also empowers local small and medium-sized businesses that will invest directly in the community.
Broadband is not what luxury looks like
In the late 90’s, when the internet was an emerging tool for households, it could have been considered a luxury. Early adopters enjoyed the new world of e-commerce, information sharing and community building. But today our lives exist just as digitally as in the “real world”.
Time and time again, research has shown that slow internet connections or limited access can contribute to students falling behind academically. There is a strong correlation between internet access and wealth creation. The research also highlights that in the United States, subsidizing Internet access increased income and employment for low-income families.
When we talk about connecting all New Yorkers, we’re not just talking about the ability to stream Netflix. We’re talking about giving vulnerable people access to resources, like applying for childcare grants, job postings, or information about political candidates in local elections, that will create opportunities for entire communities.
Getting more of this city online is about more than bragging about how progressive we are. It is a moral duty and a means of continuing the promise of the American Dream inscribed on Lady Liberty’s underside.