Like so many U.S. cities, broadband in New York City sucks. Despite being routinely heralded as a technology and innovation hub, the city is plagued by a lack of competition in the broadband sector, leaving city residents with the choice of just one or two giant internet service providers (ISPs) eager to overcharge consumers for what’s usually substandard service.
A new major city proposal hopes to finally change all that. This week the Mayor's Office of the Chief Technology Officer released what it’s calling its Internet Master Plan, a massive new proposal to create a citywide open access broadband network, bringing faster, cheaper service to anybody that wants it. The city won’t be building its own broadband network alone, something hundreds of U.S. communities have explored due to frustration with the status quo. Instead, the city hopes to strike a new partnership with private companies to help build a new fiber and wireless network serving all 8.5 million New Yorkers across all five boroughs. “The private market has failed to deliver the internet in a way that works for all New Yorkers,” the plan notes, pointing out that 29 percent of NYC households don’t have broadband, and 46 percent of families living below the poverty line don’t have service—usually due to high prices.
“18% of residents—more than 1.5 million New Yorkers—have neither a mobile connection nor a home broadband connection,” the study found. “This significant portion of the city’s residents face barriers to education, employment, banking, healthcare, social networks, and government services in ways that other residents do not.” The city’s findings lean on notoriously stale and unreliable FCC data, meaning the problem is likely worse than city leaders realize.
To fix it, the city says it will put out a call for private partners later this year. For around $2.1 billion, leaders say the project can deploy a fiber and wireless network that leans heavily on government-owned infrastructure. What’s more, the network will be “open access,” meaning multiple ISPs will be invited to come in and compete over the same network. In 2009, the FCC funded a Harvard study that concluded the competition created by open access models results in lower broadband prices and better service. You can see the concept on display in Ammon, Idaho, where city leaders built an open access, community-owned broadband network that lets locals switch ISPs in a matter of seconds. While countries like Sweden have embraced the model with notable success, U.S. telecom giants have lobbied hard to prevent such a model from taking root in the States. New York City’s proposal will begin by sending out a formal request for private sector assistance later this year. From there, the city promises to offer its private sector partners broad access to city infrastructure, including 800 city rooftops and 20,000 poles to deploy both fiber and a neutral radio access network capable of reaching every corner of the city. City leaders are quick to insist that building a better alternative to the status quo could—under ideal circumstances—create 165,000 new jobs, a $49 billion increase in personal income, and up to $142 billion in incremental gross city product by 2045. “These economic impacts cannot be fully realized under the current conditions of the internet in the city,” the city said. Like many past proposals, the success of the venture will depend on the city’s willingness to follow through and stand up to industry giants, something that historically hasn’t been government’s strong suit. In New York’s case however, the project is motivated by years of souring relationships with existing broadband providers.
In 2008, Verizon struck a closed door agreement with then Mayor Mike Bloomberg to bring fiber to the entire city by 2014. But despite getting ample tax breaks under the plan, Verizon never completed its network build, resulting in an ongoing city lawsuit against the provider. Verizon’s only major competitor in the city, Spectrum, was almost kicked out of New York State entirely for poor service, lying to regulators, and failing to meet conditions affixed to the company’s $78.7 billion acquisition of Time Warner Cable in 2016. Combined, the two providers enjoy a duopoly over New York City broadband. The end result is the same as what you’ll find across vast swaths of the United States: slow speeds, comically bad customer service, and a disdain for concepts like privacy and net neutrality. Former FCC lawyer Gigi Sohn told Motherboard that the city’s proposal is the most “thoughtful and comprehensive blueprint” she’s seen by a major city looking to fix the broadband problem.
“The federal government has failed to meet the broadband needs of tens of millions of Americans,” Sohn said. “It is therefore incumbent upon states, cities and municipalities to step up where the federal government has stood down.”
The city is also promising that unlike incumbent ISPs, the city’s new network will respect concepts like privacy and net neutrality once completed. With the FCC now widely viewed as a rubber stamp for industry desires, the onus rests on localities to pick up the slack.
"Every New Yorker deserves easy, affordable access to the internet," New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said of the city’s new program. "With the Internet Master Plan, we are giving notice to corporations that the days of creating a digital divide in our city are over.”