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Earlier this year, when Jennifer Gutierrez took office as a New York City council member and chair of its technology committee, she had one question: “What’s going on with the Internet Master Plan?”
In January 2020, former mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled an ambitious $2.1 billion plan for universal broadband within the city — the first effort to provide equitable Internet access to all residents of any major US city. The proposal was to build a “neutral host” infrastructure that could be shared by several internet operators, rather than a single company, increasing competition to established private companies unable to bridge New York’s digital divide. In building this infrastructure, the city will provide community-based providers with opportunities to use city-owned property for expanded, cost-effective service.
But Gutierrez hasn’t heard any updates since the plan was announced. “A lot of things have been put on hold during the pandemic, but the Internet Master Plan should not have been discussed because of the growing need to make the Internet more accessible and affordable,” explains Gutierrez. In May, hearings with the Office of Technology and Innovation, a new agency under current Mayor Eric Adams, revealed that the plan had been suspended and reassessed. And then, this September, Mayor Adams announced Big Apple Connect, a partnership with Altice and Charter to provide affordable service to 300,000 New Yorkers living in public housing.
New York City Councilwoman Jennifer Gutierrez is chair of the technology committee.
“The whole idea of the Internet Master Plan is to be as inclusive as possible,” Gutierrez said. “With Big Apple Connect, it felt like the city didn’t need to go back to that plan or consult with the people who connected it.”
While Next City’s report highlights that the new administration did not consult with the original Internet Master Plan team, it also points to a larger problem. The community-based providers the city tapped to help build “neutral host” infrastructure were high and dry — in favor of a partnership with two big companies that the master plan would challenge.
“Community providers with boots on the ground who really care about our neighborhoods and our people are the best chance we’ve ever had to make New York City the greatest city in the world with everyone connected,” said Clayton Banks, president. Silicon Harlem is one such provider. “Big Apple Connect fails in many ways.”
Before the pandemic, nearly a third of New York City households did not have a home broadband Internet connection, and more than 1.5 million New Yorkers had neither mobile nor home broadband. according to According to the Society for Community Service’s 2022 report, the pandemic has exacerbated inequalities in access to reliable service, which has suddenly become a necessity for working and learning.
The Internet Master Plan stems from a belief that the private sector is not doing enough to address the city’s digital divide. Altice, Charter, and Verizon dominate the industry—in many neighborhoods, only one or two of these companies provide service, creating a local monopoly at high prices. In 2017 — nine years after Verizon promised to make high-speed Fios internet service available in New York — to every home in the city filed a lawsuit stating that the company did not fulfill this promise.
The Internet Master Plan is built on years of research, data, and discussion about how to change course. “It took into account capital, competition, and would create tons of jobs by bringing future-ready infrastructure to neighborhoods that need it,” says Greta Byrun, a digital equity expert who worked on the plan. “It was a very forward-looking plan that looked at the need for digital capital and as an opportunity and place to build broadband services.”
One of the key players in doing this will be community-based and smaller ISPs. City from June 2020 to July 2021 It attracted six vendors, many led by women and people of color, to begin installing low-cost connectivity options in public housing. That group included Silicon Harlem, cleantech startup BlocPower, and the volunteer-led, community-owned NYC Mesh network.
By the end of 2021, vendors served 40,000 residents in 18 public housing buildings. Some felt more could have been done. NYC Mesh Rep: “Because of the effort involved and the amount of money on the table, not that many people are connected” he told Next City in November.
Sellers began talking to other city agencies to identify buildings and expand service. A partnership with NYC Mesh has begun NYC Health + Hospitals with the idea to install at Harlem Hospital. Others were negotiating with the Ministry of Education.
Clayton Banks is the head of Silicon Harlem.
Banks, who co-founded Silicon Harlem nearly a decade ago, thinks these early partnerships between community providers and city agencies are “the right way” to launch the plan. “In our negotiations and conversations with the city, we’ve identified over 160 buildings that we want to serve,” he said. But the city never developed a universal, streamlined process for vendors to work with city agencies, which slowed the process. A budget to support community providers never materialized. “The city budgeted over $160 million to make this happen,” Banks said, “but not a nickel of it was spent. The difficulty we had, the lack of resources, really slowed down the process.”
These on-the-ground problems were compounded by a larger, more present problem that undermined the city’s reliance on private broadband infrastructure. By building a public “neutral host” infrastructure, community providers can dramatically expand their reach.
But after relying on private companies with no obligation to share their resources, building public infrastructure has been difficult. When companies like Verizon install fiber-optic networks throughout the city, they own the network and everything; While antitrust rules require telephone providers to sell access to their networks, these rules do not include the Internet. “In meetings with the city, it became clear that the city is still struggling with the idea of having a city-owned fiber backbone,” explains NYC Mesh volunteer Marg Suarez.
These problems put the Internet Master Plan in a vulnerable position in early 2022, when Mayor Adams takes office. “We’re out of time,” Banks said simply. “And now it seems like that plan has been ripped away from us.”
Newly established The NYC Office of Technology and Innovation (OTI) did not respond to multiple requests for comment. During a City Council hearing in May, chief technology officer Matthew Fraser said the Internet Master Plan is being “reviewed” to ensure it doesn’t require new broadband infrastructure where it already exists. “Let’s make sure we know where it’s going and that it’s in the city’s best interest before we sign off on this,” he told council members.
In September of this year, OTI announced Big Apple Connect ahead of another hearing on its Internet Master Plan. “OTI was unable to detail any other short, medium or long-term plans to connect New Yorkers to the Internet outside of the Big Apple Connect program announced the morning of the hearing,” said council member Gutierrez. public statement after announcement. He also expressed concern about scaling back Big Apple Connect, a three-year initiative that won’t cover all public housing: “We need a solid roadmap, not pop-up apps.”
For many proponents of the Internet Master Plan, the focus has shifted since the city announced it will partner with Altice and Charter to implement Big Apple Connect, and not with any community provider. “The Internet Master Plan was absolutely a threat to these companies,” Bayram said. “I don’t think Big Apple Connect was driven by the city, I think it was driven by the incumbents,” echoes Banks.
Prashanth Vijay, Founder Flume, another company that applied for the Internet Master Plan, wrote that “partnering with them to bridge the digital divide is like partnering with Big Oil to solve climate change.” Altice and Chater, he said, “are largely responsible for creating fragmentation by holding fiber connections hostage through exclusivity clauses in contracts with local governments.”
Big Apple Connect will provide government subsidies to Altice, which owns the current with a net worth of $3 billion and Charter with a net worth of $59 billion. “In the case of NYC Mesh, we’re mostly volunteers,” Suarez said. NYC Mesh is now unsure of the fate of its existing facilities in public housing and considers the NYC Health and Hospitals partnership to have been dissolved.
“As priorities and strategies go, it’s a big ask for NYC Mesh to contend with,” Suarez continues. “We have limited resources … we’ve already lost a lot of volunteer hours.”
“We’re doing things on our own dime,” Banks says of Silicon Harlem’s installation in public housing. By the end of this year, Silicon Harlem will serve three residential buildings. But the city has not explained how existing service from community providers for public housing residents will be affected by service from Altice and Charter.
Starry, another smaller provider part of the city’s original group, has cut half its workforce and scrapped expansion plans. last month. The company declined to be interviewed and did not publicly link the layoffs to the abandonment of the master plan. But a source familiar with the matter tells Next City: “I think they made a big bet [with the Internet Master Plan] and mostly lost.”
What’s more, sources note, the city could lose federal funding from the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act by ditching the Internet Master Plan. allocates $65 billion to increase broadband access and will prioritize unconnected communities.
“The Internet Master Plan would have positioned the city really well to be a recipient of these funds,” says Byrum. “And now Big Apple Connect has nothing to do with sustainability or long-term economic development. It’s just a way of doubling down on the old, private infrastructure that already exists.”
It’s an unfortunate end to a plan that touts itself as the first attempt to provide fair internet access to all residents of a major US city. “Other cities will look at us now and they may think the best way to address digital capital is a Big Apple Connect approach, and that’s not the message the country wants to see,” Banks said.
He and Byrum both say the Internet Master Plan can still serve as a detailed road map for cities willing to invest in community providers and public infrastructure. Learning from New York’s mistakes, such a vision can only succeed with significant funding and resources dedicated to community providers, as well as a commitment to challenging established providers who will work to shut out competitors.
“The plan should benefit the people, not the providers,” Banks said.