New York abandons $157M broadband plan, leaving vendors in the lurch

The proposal was drafted by the de Blasio administration, and in October 2021, dozens of companies were notified that they would be selected for employment. But financing and contract details were still pending when Mayor Eric Adams took office in January.

“All of our hard work was undone with a handshake and a stroke of the pen,” said Marge Suarez, who worked on the RFP with NYC Mesh. NYC Mesh, a nonprofit community Wi-Fi provider, has been involved in months of negotiations with the city over what would have been a nearly $8 million project to expand connectivity to neighborhoods deprived of fast broadband.

The New York City office of Technology and Innovation said the decision not to award a contract to the applicants was consistent with the goals of Adams’ reconfigured technology division, which decided to prioritize the near-term needs of New Yorkers who lack Internet access.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s goals around Internet accessibility were formalized in the Internet Master Plan, a document released in January 2020 that focused on adding diversity and competition to the ISP market while increasing the number of New Yorkers able to afford home broadband service and work. Mayor Adams’ goals were different.

OTI spokesperson Ryan Birchmeier said in a statement provided to OTI Crane. He pointed to the Big Apple Connect program. Launched in September, it has brought free broadband service to 90,000 families living in 130 New York City Housing Authority projects, through partnerships with Optimum and Spectrum.

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Birchmeier also noted the potential for a future RFP for a permanent broadband service provider to “create strategic management of the City’s assets and ensure that revenue streams are directed toward financing equitable access to the latest broadband technology for all New Yorkers.”

He said the office is in the process of determining where the $157 million in capital funding earmarked for the previous plan will go.

There are only a few large ISPs in New York City, in part because of the upfront cost of laying fiber-optic cable under concrete in a crowded city. As a result, the big providers, including Altice, Charter Communications, and Verizon, are often the only players in a given neighborhood, and their bundled plans can run upwards of $80 per month—often for faster connectivity than most residents need, even if They work or take lessons at home.

The Internet master plan sought to share the city’s infrastructure including bus shelters to hospitals with a range of smaller providers, many of them run by women or minorities, who could use the physical structures to extend wire networks or nodes. The goal was to reach an additional 1.6 million residents.

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The city’s October 2021 announcement of winning vendors, including NYC Mesh, seemed like a huge step forward.

“Then we were in the negotiations,” Suarez said. We have made an account with the city for spending. We received introductions. But the funding just wasn’t there.”

She said that no progress was made in the winter and spring. Then, in September, the city introduced Big Apple Connects, and in October came OTI’s Strategic Plan. Around that time, Suarez said, there were whispers that the request for proposals would never materialize.

Suarez said the NYC Mesh woll is continuing to build the existing contract, which is mostly run by volunteers, using some of the connections and access to city infrastructure it gained in the process. But she said the expansion could have been much faster with the funding expected.

The Adams administration — which took office during a round of Covid-19 cases that have kept many New Yorkers at home — stressed that it had to work out short-term access issues before working on more difficult infrastructure questions. Over the summer, it announced 2,000 new Link5G kiosks, as well as a handful of Gigabit centers, which are free spaces with high-speed internet. One is run by Silicon Harlem, and another is RFP applicants.

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And the change appeared to backfire for a group of fair-minded start-up providers, who said opening up the market to more players was crucial.

But she was not involved in the solicitation, said Virginia L. Abrams, executive vice president of government affairs and strategic advances for Starry, a service provider that has worked with the city on low-cost access for New York City residents. “From a policy standpoint, if we are serious about taking meaningful steps toward permanently closing the digital divide, increasing competition and choice needs to be part of the conversation and the policy dialogue.”

While priorities and strategies leave room for debate, the bigger issue is that an expensive and important project like new broadband is likely to outlast any one administration. Building the right infrastructure in Brooklyn can take 15 years, Prashanth Vijay, co-founder and CEO of Midtown’s Flume Internet, said this month on the “Divide” podcast.

“It is a challenge to embark on this project knowing that the IT or transport authorities may change two or three times over the course of this project,” said Vijay.

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