Community Wireless

Exploring ideas that matter to communities and wireless networks

Thursday, September 01, 2005

The Resident Article on Muni-Wireless for New York

The Resident (August 29, 2005 issue, page 21, no permanent link available) reporter Tim Fox interviewed me about municipal wireless and what it might mean in New York. (The original article gets my last name wrong. I've corrected it below.)

Express Lines: The City's High-Tech Experts Debate How To Bring Internet Access to All New Yorkers

By Tim Fox

From Broadway to Battery Park and beyond, Web-savvy users can now log on with ease as low-cost Internet cafés, and free wireless spaces have transformed the city into a green pasture for laptop-wielding New Yorkers.

"We already have an amazing network," says Ted Bongiovanni, a director at the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning (www.ccnmtl.columbia.edu), an educational technology department at Columbia University. "I see a very wired or wireless future for New York."

At least that’s the ideal. In truth, though broadband — dedicated highspeed Internet access — is available to many New Yorkers, the majority still has problems getting the service, according to Dana Spiegel, the executive director of NYCwireless, a New York group that promotes free wireless Internet access.

"About 60 percent of New York City doesn’t make use of broadband, and 90 percent of low-income people have no broadband," he says. "The reason for this is that most communities have only access to one or two big providers, and broadband can’t be had in New York for less than $50 a month."

Some state and local governments are making broadband a public utility akin to water, sewerage, telephone lines and electricity. The state of Georgia now wires up with Georgia Public Web, a high-speed Internet provider owned by the state’s municipalities. The government of Philadelphia plans to offer free or low-cost Wi-Fi, a popular high-speed Internet wireless service. But city experts don’t see a public utility on New York’s broadband horizon.

NYCwireless is interested in improving broadband accessibility and affordability, but not making it a public utility, Spiegel says.

Bongiovanni compares broadband with human rights, but says government involvement is a bad idea. "For those of us who live with broadband everyday, it is a right. But the city could end up being an investor in a technology that is antiquated."

At the same time, he says, "I don’t think that municipalities should be prohibited from providing these services if they decide that’s what’s best since what they’re doing is repackaging a public good. The industry is asking for a monopoly, and that’s just not right to provide at the expense of citizens."

There are effective models for how government could get involved, says Jason Fox, a senior director at Digital Knowledge Ventures, a unit of Columbia University. "In Singapore, it is a public service and looked at as a way to train the workforce for the future," he says. "Singapore has been one of the leaders of broadband penetration, and people have been looking at that as a model for how governments can be proactive and effective [in promoting broadband access]. At the same time, I am wary of increased city involvement in improving broadband access and would rather see something done at the national level."

Thus, far national and local efforts have been limited. In a March 26, 2004, speech, President George W. Bush promised universal broadband access by 2007 and extended an Internet-tax ban for two years. Meanwhile, a one-year city task force created on April 14 by the City Council committee for technology in government will advise the mayor on making Internet accessible to New Yorkers. But committee chairwoman and task-force member Gale A. Brewer says the city has no plans to make broadband a public utility.

Fox, however, says things might not be so bad after all. "I am not convinced that New York City has a real problem. [We have] the fourth-largest broadband connection in the country," he says. "Sixty-six percent of computer users are connected. That tells me that it is not a major concern. There are much more pressing issues the city has to deal with — ground zero, the state of the schools, the rapidly declining subway infrastructure — to me those are all more important. Broadband would not even rate in the top 10."