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How New York is bringing Internet-deprived homes out of the digital dark

April 25, 2015 at 2:56 PM EDT
There are more than 730,000 homes in New York City without broadband access. And because the Internet today is the gateway to everything from education to the economy, the city is trying to bring those families out of the digital dark. But Internet access requires more than a connection for cash-strapped families. It has to be affordable, too. Hari Sreenivasan reports.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Two years ago Karen been never had to walk to get someplace. She owned a car. She also had a corporate job in Atlanta and a house with a pool in the backyard. But today this single mother of two boys is unemployed and on the job hunt in New York City. They moved here for a better life but quickly ran out of money. And the one thing she needs right now to get back on her feet is what most of us take for granted.

KAREN BEEN: I feel that the internet will definitely be a catalyst in me getting out of the situation we are in. If you are looking for a job they want me to go online and fill out an application. There is no more hardcopies when it comes to resumes.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But it’s difficult for been to go online and send out her resume. She can’t afford the monthly internet bill, which costs around 60 dollars a month in New York City. So after school, the three make a beeline for the library. Been’s 11 year old son Ishan Siddiqui rushes to finish his homework before the library closes.

ISHAN SIDDIQUI: It was kind of difficult because sometimes in class I didn’t understand something and I wanted to go on the computer but I couldn’t go on it so I couldn’t research what I wanted to.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The Been family is one of 730 thousand households in New York that does not have internet in the home. The city says it’s doing its part to pull New Yorkers out of the digital dark, but it takes more than just having an internet connection. That connection has to be affordable too.

MAYA WILEY: The Internet today is really what railroads and roads were at the turn of the century; they’re our primary way both of doing commerce and for people to get connected to the economy, to get education.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Maya Wiley is a counsel to New York City mayor Bill DeBlasio. Her mission is to make high speed internet more accessible to New Yorkers, especially for people who can’t afford to pay for basic broadband. She considers it a social justice issue.

MAYA WILEY: No matter who you are and no matter your financial resources, you will be able to get online for free and get high speed Internet.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So the city is focused on rolling out free wireless like with these vans that double as mobile computer labs and Wi-Fi hubs. They’re usually parked in front of public housing apartments. The city is also expanding Wi-Fi underground and in public spaces like Madison Square Park. And later this year, the city will turn defunct pay phones into free wireless hubs. Public libraries are also joining in, lending out free hotspots—mobile devices that transmit a wireless signal—that low-income families can check out, much like books. Been and her sons took one home.

ISHAN SIDDIQUI: When the library closes on Friday, it closes really early, but when I go home I can finish doing what I want on the computer, and now when I study I get better grades.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But in neighborhoods where the city’s wireless programs don’t yet extend far enough, residents are literally taking measures into their own hands. A few times a week Robert Smith climbs to the rooftops of Red Hook, Brooklyn. With equipment and funding from the Red Hook Initiative — a community center that receives support from the — he installs tiny routers that beam out wireless signals. There are dozens of these throughout the neighborhood, essentially creating a blanket of free Wi-Fi.

ROBERT SMITH: Having Internet access just opens up a whole another world of opportunity, like people can obtain like a college level degree of education just from the Internet.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Smith has lived in public housing his whole life and says most of his friends can’t afford an internet bill. That’s because 60 percent of the residents in red hook live in low income public housing, where the average family’s income is just over $23,000.

SUSAN CRAWFORD: It’s ridiculously expensive here in the United States to have this basic thing in your house that makes possible every other aspect of life.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Susan Crawford is a professor at Cardozo Law School in New York City. She also served as President Obama’s special assistant for technology. She says people today expect to have internet access anytime – in the same way they expect water from a faucet or power from an electrical outlet, much like a public utility.

SUSAN CRAWFORD: In America, we’re in this weird moment, where although it feels like a utility to most Americans, and they need, they know they can’t have a house without it or business without it. It’s a luxury that actually is a utility.

HARI SREENIVASAN: A luxury, she says, because a handful of internet service providers—like Time Warner and Comcast—have cornered the market on broadband, leaving customers with fewer choices and higher prices—on average 30 and 60 dollars a month.

SUSAN CRAWFORD: That’s happened because of a lack of regulation.  Doesn’t happen by magic.  It happens because it’s in their interests to control markets and reap steady profits.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Although the Federal Communications commission officially classified broadband internet as a public utility this past February, it said that it would not get involved with pricing decisions. But there are other options. Several U.S. cities are now offering their own publicly-funded broadband services—cities like Chattanooga, Tennessee, Wilson, North Carolina, Bristol, Virginia, Lafayette, Louisiana, and Cedar Falls, Iowa. The hope is that these services will attract new businesses and expand internet access to more people across the economic spectrum. But there are some who are critical of this new model.

JEFFREY EISENACH: When governments go into business and compete with the private sector, it’s just not their, it’s just not their forte.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Jeff Eisenach is with the American Enterprise Institute and studies policies that affect the information technology sector. He says that, although the government can play a role in bringing internet access to poorer Americans, public broadband services can’t keep up with the innovation that the private broadband industry offers.

JEFFREY EISENACH: The largest investors in the United States today, are America’s broadband companies.  They’re AT&T and Verizon are always on the top, literally, the top of the list that the companies spending the most money. What you don’t want is government coming in and replacing all of the innovation, all of the dynamism, all of the growth, all of the technological progress that we’re seeing throughout the internet, including in the broadband market.

HARI SREENIVASAN: For her part, Maya Wiley says that while a public broadband model isn’t realistic for New York, the city can play a role in bringing free internet to its poorer residents, as well as bringing down the cost.

MAYA WILEY: We are the largest city in the country and one of the most diverse. That means we can’t just simply replicate a model from Chattanooga, Tennessee, even though it’s a wonderful model, we’re just very different.

When we take our pay phones and turn them into wireless hot spots, and they’re free hot spots, that is a form of competition for, say, Time Warner Cable that has subscribers that pay money for wireless service, right? That should help create some price pressure downward.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Wiley says there’s no one-size-fits all solution. The city is looking to expand red hook’s wireless mesh program to other communities. Wiley’s team also plans on working with private companies to create more free wireless…as it did with sprint for the library hotspots.

Karen been and her sons have had the device now for four months. She recently started taking EMT training classes, and now that she has internet in the house, she can easily do her assignments online. She’s hoping that internet access will give her the edge she needs to pass her certification test in June and, with any luck, to find a job.

KAREN BEEN: It wouldn’t be possible to pay 50, 60, 70 dollars a month for high-speed Internet. Definitely not. So having access to the web at home allows me to look for employment more freely.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Been is hopeful that the city’s wireless will soon open doors for her and her sons.