A Fight to Bring Broadband to NYC Public Housing, Cracking the “Digital Divide”

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The “digital divide” is a tough problem to solve. Here’s how New York City is tackling bringing broadband to a poor area.    

The largest public housing development in North America is getting an upgrade that includes free, public WiFi. Opened in 1940, Queensbridge in New York City houses some 6,600 residents among 26 buildings, reports Wired.

Last year, Mayor de Blasio announced a $10 million program, administered in partnership with the federal government, to guarantee broadband access in underserved communities. Here, the city owns the broadband infrastructure and private vendors bid for contracts to manage the local networks.  

New Haven, CT managed-wireless contractor Spot On won the installation contract from the city housing authority. For the network to have robust coverage throughout the buildings, Spot On has to install small access points in the hall closets of roughly every third of the estimated 3,000 units, reports Wired.

Spot On hired Queensbridge resident Shameya Muniz to canvass for authorization. It’s been a tough sell, especially to older residents who have no smartphones or computers, says her colleague April Andrews.

“We have to say to them, ‘You know your neighbor, you watched him grow up since he was a little boy, now he’s 18 and he only gets an hour at a computer at the library to do his term paper.’ You have to make people like him feel they’re doing something bigger for the community.”

The vendor did have a bit of good luck in the install. The buildings had been wired with cable suitable for internet and video networks years ago, but not connected. Racks and cabinets of switching equipment were in basements, untouched and in good working order, reports Wired.

Deploying broadband to rural and low-income areas has been challenging nationwide. In New York City, one in five households lack internet service, according to the Center for Economic Opportunity. The number is more than one in three for households below the poverty line.

Nationally, nearly 20 percent of smartphone owners rely on the device to access the internet. However once introductory rates expire, many suspend or cancel the service, according to Pew Research.

On the day Wired accompanied Muniz and Andrews, residents said they paid between nearly $15 to over $200 a month for internet service that was often unreliable. Many signed the release forms to allow Spot On to install the access points in their units. They want to have a choice of providers, Muniz and Andrews explained.  

November 7, 2016

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