“What telephone service was to our grandparents, Wi-Fi is to this generation right now,” proclaimed New York Mayor Eric Adams at the unveiling the city’s latest effort to close the digital divide. The event took place in July 2022 on West Burnside Ave in Morris Heights, Bronx, with the presentation of a Link5G tower.
Mayor Adams went on, noting: “Accessible broadband and phone service, it’s just not a luxury, it’s a necessity. Just as we need electricity and heat and hot water, these same services they plan a vital role in being able to carry out our function – so to Wi-Fi.”
The 32-foot-high Link5G towers are replacing the previous LinkNYC kiosks that were 9-feet-tall and were introduced to replace the old-fashion payphone booths.
As a press report noted, they aim “to put Wi-fi and digital advertising screens in thousands of pay phone booths across the city. The Wi-fi hotspots will also offer charging stations for cell phones and free calls to anywhere in the US.” However, reports of homeless people watching porn on the kiosks led to the stopping of internet access at the kiosks.
The new Link5Gs are popping up throughout the city, targeted to what the city’s office of Technology and Innovation (OTI) identifies as underserved areas. As of November 2022, LinkNYC reports having installed 1,925 Links out of the planned 7,500 towers.
Media reports note that residents in areas of the city that the Link5G towers are being installed as less than happy with them. A recent New York Times article quotes a Brooklyn resident and head of the Vanderbilt Avenue Block Associations complaining, “Never have a I heard one mention of residents asking for a tower to be placed where we life.” A similar reaction was shared by a Chinatown resident, “Who wants to look at something like that?”
It’s not clear whether the Link5G effort will be any more successful than earlier efforts to end the city’s digital inequality.
Digital inequality is nationwide phenomenon involving both rural areas and urban pockets. In 2021, the FCC reported that in 2019 “the number of Americans living in areas without access to at least 25/3 Mbps (the Commission’s current benchmark)” was “fewer than 14.5 million.” The key term is “living in areas without access” and, sadly, no one really knows how many Americans remain under- or un-served by broadband services.
The U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 American Community Survey (ACS) survey found that more than 20.4 million homes had no broadband subscription at home. Of these, 5.1 million homes were in rural areas while 15.3 million homes are non-rural. And John Kahan, Microsoft chief data analytics officer, warned that the FCC estimates were “vastly undercounts.” He noted that Microsoft data indicate that almost 162.8 million people “are not using the internet at broadband speeds.”
Still others have raised similar concerns. BroadbandNow argues that 42 million Americans do not have a broadband access. Gigi Sohn, a former FCC attorney and now being considered to be a commissioner, estimated that some 141 million people in the U.S. lack access to fixed broadband at speeds of 25 Mbps, the FCC’s broadband standard.
Perhaps the most damning assessment of digital inequality was made by Common Sense Media (CSM) and the Boston Consulting Group (BCG). They found that ”while 18 percent of White households lack broadband, 26 percent of Latinx, 30 percent of Black, and 35 percent of Native American student households lack adequate home internet access.” It goes further, arguing: “In rural communities, 37 percent of students are without a home broadband connection compared to 25 percent in suburban households and 21 percent in urban area.”
In April 2020, as the first wave of the pandemic spread through the country, the Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York (CCC) reported that an estimated 500,000 – of the 3.3 million – city households lacked internet access, this is more than 800,000 New Yorkers without internet access, including over 150,000 school-age kids of the city 1.1 million students.
CCC went further noting that racial and ethnic divisions are most pronounced, with Black, Hispanic and Native American communities significantly underserved. Women and girls – along with those living with physical disabilities – “are often disadvantaged when it comes to accessing the internet. They may have the necessary skills but cannot exploit the available hardware and software.”
In 2008, under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the city signed an agreement with Verizon under which the company committed “to extend its FiOS network to every household across the five boroughs by June 30, 2014.” In 2010, Verizon suspended FiOS expansion due to the high cost of building a fiber-optic network and running connections to homes.
In 2014, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration signed an agreement with CityBridge – a consortium included Intersection (of which Alphabet/Google’s Sidewalk Labs is an investor) – that is behind LinkNYC and Link5G.
In 2016, LinkNYC premiered its first kiosk on Third Avenue between 15th and 19th Streets. Its kiosks were to offer free Wi-Fi, free domestic phone calls, free internet-connected tablets, free USB charging ports and were expected to generate revenue through on-screen advertising. In addition, it agreed to pay a half-billion dollars to the city. However, the company faced bankruptcy in 2019 and, in 2020, the city planned to terminate its agreement with the company.
In 2017, the city sued Verizon claiming it broke the contract to provide citywide fiber coverage.
In January 2020, as the Verizon settlement was being worked out, the city released the “NYC Internet Master Pan.” The report found nearly “40% of New York City households lack the combination of home and mobile broadband, including 18% of residents – more than 1.5 million people – who lack both.” It added, “the millions of underconnected New Yorkers tend to have lower household incomes compared to more digitally-connected households. 46% of New York City households living in poverty do not have broadband at home.” Going further, it declared: “The private market has failed to deliver the internet in a way that works for all New Yorkers.”
To address the systemic problems associated with the digital inequality, in July 2020, the city announced it would “make a historic $157 million investment in ending digital redlining and providing high-speed internet, including $87 million redirected from the NYPD budget.” According to the city, the “investment will extend new internet service options to 600,000 underserved New Yorkers, including 200,000 NYCHA residents over the next 18 months.” And in November 2020, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a settlement with Verizon agreeing to wire 500,000 additional homes for high-speed internet service by 2023. The clock is ticking.
“The structural inequalities of the digital divide rests on ‘digital red-lining’ that is built on top of urban redlining,” insists Joshua Breitbart, a Leadership in Government Fellow at the Open Society Foundations and New York City’s former Deputy Chief Technology Officer. He added:
You have to deliver broadband within that framework and with a real eye at repairing and understanding the need for justice, of the inequity and trauma built into so many urban communities. Especially within terms of structural racism, you need to be implementing – no matter what program – with that framework in mind in your city in order to address the digital divide.
“The decades of redlining represent a form of systematic racism that has denied generations of Black communities the kind of opportunities many other Americans enjoy,” notes CNET’s Shara Tibken. She adds:
Fiber connections are expensive, and ISPs are hesitant to expand unless they expect a return on their investment. As a result, poorer communities often have no internet or are stuck with slow, legacy networks that can’t meet today’s demands — even though they usually pay as much as their wealthier neighbors who have gigabit fiber connections.
She concludes, “Digital redlining isn’t illegal since there aren’t regulations that dictate where broadband providers build their networks. But those desirable areas are often affluent, predominantly white communities.”
The creation and sustaining of digital redlining and, thus, the U.S.’s second-rate and overpriced telecom services, has been due to four critical developments.
+ First, the telecoms targeted upmarket neighborhoods to provide better services, including fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) and left poorer areas — both urban and rural — to suffer.
+ Second, the telecom companies made the traditional state networks appear unprofitable. They long claimed that new features of the telecommunications technology – e.g., Internet Protocol (“IP”) or VoIP — should not be regulated.
+ Third, the telecoms shifted the charges to build out fiber links for wireless to the “regulated” state utilities. They got the regulators, politicians and a clueless press to agree that the wireline networks are unprofitable. In this way they avoided their obligation to upgrade the rural areas and inner cities.
+ Finally, there’s been collusion between telcos and the cable companies to prevent competition.
So, instead of building out FTTH to all New Yorkers, the telecoms cherry-picked upmarket neighborhoods and left the rest — that’s 40 percent of city households – to do without what Mayor Adams calls a “necessity.” Will the city’s latest scheme to reach the underserved or digitally disadvantaged, those living in digitally redlined neighborhoods, through the inferior 5G wireless solution work? Stay tuned.