As a brief overview, NYC’s recent broadband efforts aimed at closing the digital divide include the following:
- In 2019 Mayor de Blasio engaged in an effort to encourage the adoption of broadband in the outer boroughs
- The Internet Master Plan was released in January, 2020;
- A planned $157 million investment towards broadband efforts was announced in July, 2020
- A New Deputy Chief Technology Officer, Aaron Meyerson was appointed to lead the implementation of the Internet Master Plan in December, 2020; and
- A Request for Proposals was released in March, 2021 inviting the telecommunications industry to “create new affordable broadband service options,” in partnership with the city.
The relevant numbers applicable to the above activities are as follows:
- The Internet Master Plan estimated over 1.5 million NYC residents to be without any type of broadband service and unable to connect to the internet
- City Comptroller Scott Stringer found over 100,000 NYC students to be without internet access in November, 2020
- Upon announcing the $157 million investment in July of last year city broadband goals were to reach 600,000 underserved New Yorkers, 200,000 of whom resided in public housing
- When releasing the Request for Proposals in March of this year the city once again cited the goals to reach 600,000 underserved New Yorkers, with 200,000 residing in public housing. (The unchanging numbers would seem to indicate a lack of progress during this time period); and
- On its page providing information about the March, 2021 Request for Proposals, the Mayor’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer cites the January, 2020 Internet Master Plan’s finding that 1.5 million New Yorkers have “neither a home nor a mobile internet connection,” indicating that either the numbers were unchanged after over a year, or a failure to cite any updated numbers that might exist.
REQUEST FOR PROPOSALS AND TELECOMMUNICATIONS INDUSTRY PARTNERSHIPS
Following the activities in the first quarter of this year, the next steps in terms of the city’s efforts to close the digital divide focus on telecommunication industry partnerships and efforts stemming from the March Request for Proposals to “create new affordable broadband service options.”
Further indication of the city’s emphasis here can be seen from the fact that it involves a multi-agency effort that includes 18 entities such as the Small Business Services Department, the Economic Development Corporation (EDC), the Department of Transportation and the Housing Authority. The city also states it has made over 100,000 assets available.
The specific proposals hoped for involve broadband infrastructure assets such as fiber optics, conduits, wireless hub locations, or wireless networks, and have the aim of being able to deliver affordable, high speed in-home and public internet access. The city hopes to incentivize the private sector to reach and serve more customers starting with “priority areas based on the neighborhoods identified by the Task Force on Racial Inclusion and Equity as most impacted by COVID-19, and under-connected neighborhoods identified by the NYC Internet Master Plan as lacking access to affordable broadband.”
The submission window for the RFP closed on April 27th.
THIRTY THOUSAND PUBLIC HOUSING RESIDENTS TO RECEIVE HIGH SPEED INTERNET ACCESS
On May 6, the Office of the Mayor announced license agreements with five vendors that would reach 13 New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) developments which would result in up to 30,000 residents being provided access to high-speed internet.
The five vendors were said to be finalists selected from the City’s Request for Expressions of Interest issued together with the city’s Economic Development Corporation in June of last year and are Starry, Sky Packets, Silicon Harlem, Flume and NYC Mesh.
THE FCC’S EMERGENCY BROADBAND BENEFIT (EBB) PROGRAM
The existence of the digital divide is a nation-wide problem and as short term relief the federal government began providing broadband assistance in May as part of the Federal Communications Commission’s Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program, which eligible NYC residents may apply for.
Drawing from a pool of $3.2 billion in funding, temporary discounts on current or new monthly broadband subscriptions are provided on a “first-come first-serve” basis to qualifying low-income households according to a city site set up to provide information on the program.
It must be noted that the site states that the effort is a “short-term emergency subsidy program during the COVID-19 pandemic.” The EBB program site further states that the “program will end when the fund runs out of money, or six months after the Department of Health and Human Services declares an end to the COVID-19 health emergency, whichever is sooner.”
For this reason, while it may be invaluable in terms of temporarily allowing students internet access for educational purposes, any students benefiting will be unable to do so in the long term. Additionally, the program is for households and does not provide assistance to small businesses.
Other than a potential sixth agreement, as of the end of the second quarter of 2021, the Mayor’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer has not announced any additional vendor partnerships under the Internet Master Plan other than the five announced on May 6.
That the five vendors will reach an estimated 30,000 public housing residents is a substantial achievement under the Plan, which again, was released in the beginning of last year. However, there is still much progress that needs to be made, given the substantial gap that still exists in reaching the goal of providing 200,000 public housing residents with broadband access, not to mention the 1.5 million residents in the city lacking any type of internet access.