City scraps $157m broadband plan, leaving providers stranded

City scraps $157m broadband plan, leaving providers stranded

The proposal was drafted by the de Blasio administration, and in October 2021, a dozen companies were notified that they would be chosen for the work. But details of funding and contracts were still pending when Mayor Eric Adams took office in January.

“All of our hard work was undone with a handshake and the stroke of a pen,” said Marg Suarez, who worked on the tender with NYC Mesh. A non-profit community Wi-Fi provider, NYC Mesh has been involved in months of negotiations with the city on what would have been an approximately $8 million project to extend connectivity to underserved neighborhoods with fast broadband. .

The New York City Office of Technology and Innovation said the decision not to award candidates a contract was consistent with the goals of Adams’ revamped technology department, which decided to prioritize the needs short-term New Yorkers without Internet access.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s goals for internet accessibility were formalized in the Internet Master Plan, a January 2020 document focused on adding diversity and competition to the internet service provider market while expanding the population of New Yorkers who can afford broadband service at home and at work. . Mayor Adams’ goals were different.

“From the beginning, this administration has prioritized underserved communities in our efforts to provide equitable broadband access,” OTI spokesperson Ryan Birchmeier said in a statement provided to Crain’s. He pointed to the Big Apple Connect program. Launched in September, it has made free broadband service available to 90,000 households living in 130 New York City Housing Authority developments, through partnerships with Optimum and Spectrum.

Birchmeier also pointed to the likelihood of a future tender for a permanent broadband provider to “establish strategic management of the city’s assets and ensure that revenue streams are directed towards funding a equitable access to the latest broadband technologies for all New Yorkers”.

The office is determining where the $157 million in capital funding allocated for the previous plan will go, he said.

There are only a handful of major ISPs in New York City, in part because of the upfront expense of laying fiber optic cable under concrete in a crowded city. As a result, major providers such as Altice, Charter Communications, and Verizon are often the only players in a given neighborhood, and their bundled plans can cost up to $80 per month, often for faster connection than most residents. do not need it, even if they work or study at home.

The internet master plan sought to share the city’s infrastructure, including bus shelters to hospitals, with a group of small providers, many run by women or minorities, who could use the physical structures to expand wired networks. or nodal. The objective was to reach 1.6 million additional inhabitants.

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

“Then we were in negotiations,” Suarez said. “We have established an account with the city for disbursements. We were given presentations. But the funding was not there.

No progress was made in winter and spring, she said. Then in September the city introduced Big Apple Connects, and in October came the OTI strategic plan. At that time, Suarez said, rumors swirled that the RFP would never be fulfilled.

Suarez said NYC Mesh will continue its current, mostly volunteer-run node construction, using some of the connections and access to city infrastructure it gained in the process. But, she says, the expansion would have been much faster with the funding provided.

The Adams administration — which took office amid a string of Covid-19 cases that kept many New Yorkers at home — stressed it needed to address short-term access issues before working. on more difficult infrastructure issues. Over the summer, it announced 2,000 new Link5G kiosks, as well as a group of Gigabit Centers, free spaces with high-speed internet. One is run by Silicon Harlem, another one of the bidders.

The change seemed counterproductive to a group of fair-minded upstart providers, who said opening the market to more players was crucial.

“We believe that a thriving and competitive broadband market that provides New Yorkers and all Americans with a choice of Internet service providers is absolutely essential,” said Virginia Lam Abrams, executive vice president of government affairs and from the strategic advancement of Starry, a vendor that worked with the city on low-cost access for NYCHA residents but did not participate in the tender. “From a policy perspective, if we are serious about taking meaningful steps to close the digital divide permanently, then increasing competition and choice needs to be part of the conversation and policy dialogue.”

While priorities and strategies are open to debate, the larger issue is that an expensive and important project such as new broadband is likely to outlast any administration. Building the right infrastructure just in Brooklyn could take 15 years, Prashanth Vijay, co-founder and CEO of Midtown’s Flume Internet, said this month on the “Divide” podcast.

“It’s a challenge to go into this project knowing that IT or transportation authorities may change two or three times during this project,” Vijay said.

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