A cooperative effort to bridge the digital divide with low-cost WiFi

A new community-owned internet cooperative is helping to bridge the digital divide for underserved New Yorkers by providing low cost wifi systems. The People’s Choice cooperative has five hubs in the Bronx and may expand to more New York housing complexes soon. Laura Fong reports as part of our ongoing series, “Chasing The Dream: Poverty & Opportunity in America.”

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Internet access is a struggle for millions. And now that COVID-19 has pushed even more everyday activities into online spaces, limited or no internet can mean no work, no school, and a widening digital divide.

    Now, in a growing number of places in the U.S. new low-cost connections are springing up in surprising ways.

    NewsHour Weekend's Laura Fong has a look at a group in New York City working to connect low-income households to a new low-cost internet provider.

    This story is part of our ongoing series — Chasing The Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America.

  • Laura Fong:

    On the sixth floor of an affordable housing complex in the Bronx, residents have a new internet service provider: it's called People's Choice Communications, an employee- and-community-owned internet cooperative with a mission of bridging the digital divide. Technician Mario Muñoz is leading the installation.

  • Mario Muñoz:

    In the hallways, we put basically the Wi-Fi devices. And that will boost the signal to all the apartments along the hallway.

  • Laura Fong:

    People's Choice is installing what's called a "mesh wifi" network in the Bronx; they install antennas on rooftops and wifi routers in buildings to connect residents to a high-speed wifi signal.

    Using antennas and wireless routers, mesh networks keep installation costs down.

    With the help of grant funding, People's Choice is currently providing service for free to its customers and plans to keep monthly costs to no more than $15 in the future.

    In New York City, the need for affordable internet is most acute in the Bronx, where almost 38 percent of homes are without broadband, according to Mayor Bill de Blasio's Master Internet Plan released in January 2020.

  • Laura Fong:

    Brenda Rosen is CEO of Breaking Ground, an affordable housing nonprofit that serves low-income and formerly homeless people in New York City.

    Breaking Ground operates one of the first Bronx buildings where People's Choice is being installed.

  • Brenda Rosen:

    They wanted to focus on a building that had a lot of families and would benefit greatly from being able to have affordable Internet as soon as possible.

  • Laura Fong:

    Had you heard of an Internet cooperative before?

  • Brenda Rosen:

    No, no. It was new for us. We've looked into other options for as low cost internet services as we could find, but I never heard of this. I mean it is not inexpensive to have internet service, especially service that allows you to work at the speed that you need to work at. And and for the people that we serve, saving those dollars every month can truly, truly mean whether or not you have enough food on the table for your children.

  • Laura Fong:

    Residents here already have Verizon and Optimum as service options, but Michael Angeles, a college student who takes classes online, says another option is needed.

  • Michael Angeles:

    The internet is, it's very expensive and it's not very affordable for us.

  • Laura Fong:

    Angeles' family currently pays $150 a month for a Verizon TV and internet package.

  • Laura Fong:

    It sounds like you're excited at the prospect of a new internet service.

  • Michael Angeles:

    Very excited.

  • Laura Fong:

    People's Choice was started by a group of union electricians from New York's IBEW Local 3.

    More than one thousand technicians have been on strike against the telecommunications giant spectrum for the past four years.

    There's some background to this. In 2015, Charter Communications bought Time Warner to form the 2nd largest cable and internet provider in the country. It operates under the name Spectrum, serving more than 31 million customers in 41 states.

    In March 2017, more than 1,800 unionized electricians in New York City called for a strike, after negotiations broke down with Spectrum.

  • Troy Walcott:

    People couldn't make it today because they have to pick up two or three jobs in order to keep going. Bankruptcies are happening.

  • Laura Fong:

    It's now the longest-running labor strike in United States history. Troy Walcott was a union technician for two decades; for Time Warner, and then for Spectrum.

    Do you ever see yourself working for Spectrum ever again at this point?

  • Troy Walcott:

    That's a good question. What's Spectrum? Spectrum is a name on the door, but they're really holding out a system that we built out over the past 40 years. We walk through so many places in the city that we literally built with our hands, our entire system.

  • Troy Walcott:

    We are going to make sure there will be internet for all!

  • Laura Fong:

    So in the past year, Walcott and other strikers launched People's' Choice Communications.

  • Troy Walcott:

    The wordy term is a multi-stakeholder cooperative. But what we tell people is a bunch of strikers that work for Spectrum, we got together and we're going to get together with the customers and own the cable system.

  • Laura Fong:

    How is that possible?

  • Troy Walcott:

    We said why not cut out the middleman, go directly to the source and be able to get that same service. But now, instead of paying CEOs hundreds of millions of dollars, we can take in and provide more equity and split that and give people less cost service and higher quality. And that way we can also invest some of those profits back into the communities that we're serving.

  • Laura Fong:

    And they're not doing it alone. People's Choice formed the cooperative with a community organizing group Metro IAF and green energy startup BlocPower, which connected them to philanthropic funding.

  • Troy Walcott:

    This is now I believe the third building where we are installing antennas for the Bronx mesh network.

  • Laura Fong:

    So far, the cooperative has provided free internet to more than 700 residents in five buildings in the Bronx. In July, de Blasio announced a plan to bring the service to New York City public housing. The goal is to get up to 10 thousand residents connected to free internet in the first year, and then charging $15 dollars a month after.

  • Troy Walcott:

    People having a problem with the internet have other problems with food insecurity, home housing, economic income, income inequality. We see the company now as a way to galvanize people towards some type of movement towards something better. So why don't we get together and join with the customers, rebuild the system that we already know how to build and we can own it together.

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