'Disgusting': NYC Scraps Co-Op Internet in Public Housing So Big Telecom Can Move In

“The people who are working for us also lose their jobs," Troy Walcott, president of People's Choice Communications, said.

NYC’s Mayor is asking a cooperatively-run internet service provider consisting of former Spectrum employees to dismantle an already-installed network at the New York City Housing Authority so that the city can contract with Big Telecom.

Gothamist first reported that members of People’s Choice Communications (PCC) were asked this month to take down infrastructure which has only been up for a little over a year so that Mayor Eric Adams can introduce his own free internet plan for NYCHA, dubbed Big Apple Connect. The mayor’s plan will rely on large service providers, including Altice and Charter Communications, which owns Spectrum, at a total cost of $90 million over three years.


PCC’s origins lie in a worker strike. Members of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW Local 3) went on strike in 2017, protesting Charter Communications’ decision to replace their pension and health benefits and reduce overtime pay. As the strike dragged on, some workers formed their own cooperatively-run ISP and dubbed it People’s Choice Communications, as Motherboard reported in 2021. 

PCC’s website says it can set up web service for $10 to $20 a month and that residents who receive their service can share in the telecom’s decision-making. The ISP has since set up service at a Catholic school in the Bronx and a supportive housing complex, according to its website.

“It’s just really bad to have our strike end how it ended, and then immediately after that the city signs a deal with them? That’s really disgusting,” Troy Walcott, president of PCC, told Motherboard.

After five years, the union’s involvement in the strike officially ended in June, 2022, when it released a statement saying that it had stretched IBEW Local 3’s resources thin and that the union would no longer be representing Charter employees. They did not disclose any details of a settlement, and many Charter employees were distraught by union leadership’s decision, saying they received little communication about bargaining for several years, according to Documented. Over the years, Charter had brought in non-union workers from out of state and tried to decertify the union workforce. Due to the length of the strike, many striking workers were forced to return to work, unable to support their families on the union’s meager strike stipend.


Walcott says that while IBEW Local 3 is no longer representing workers, the strike is ongoing for many of them even as they now run their own ISP. “As far as we're concerned, the strike still hasn't ended,” Walcott says. “We don't have an answer, really. We're still trying to figure out what to do.”

After getting the order to dismantle their infrastructure at NYCHA, PCC began circulating a petition among residents who wish to keep their service. “This is affordable and it's trouble free unlike optimum and FiOS.... I was paying a cable bill for WiFi with other companies. People's choice gave us hope, internet, extenders if needed,” one resident wrote in the petition, which was viewed by Motherboard.

"People’s Choice has been a blessing and a very big help to my kids and I. I would remain a subscriber even if/when they charge. They supported us through the pandemic and continue to do so without making things complicated, they simply show up and deliver, their service is fast and reliable,” another resident wrote.

In 2020, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration launched an internet master plan 

to bring free and low-cost high-speed internet to low-income households, including a number of NYCHA developments. PCC, along with BlocPower and Metro IAC, were enlisted to set up broadband at the Melrose and Courtlandt houses in the Bronx in November 2021. 


The setup brought high-speed wireless to 2500 residents, according to a BlocPower press release, and there were official plans under the De Blasio administration to expand access to at least three more NYCHA developments. PCC installed rooftop antennas and Wi-Fi nodes in the 10 buildings that comprise Melrose and Courtlandt houses, helped by a local workforce trained by BlocPower. PCC was also handling network maintenance, billing, and customer service.

But Mayor Adams put the plan for expansion on hold and then scrapped it last December, Gothamist reported. The mayor rolled out his own plan for NYCHA developments, called Big Apple Connect, which would provide free broadband access to residents of public housing for three years at a cost of $90 million. The Adams administration said it was more efficient to rely on large broadband providers Charter and Altice because their infrastructure was already set up across NYCHA’s portfolio, but the administration told Gothamist at the time that providers like PCC who had already set up their infrastructure could remain.

Walcott says that they were in talks with the Mayor’s Office of Technology and Innovation (OTI), which is handling Big Apple Connect, to expand PCC’s infrastructure to NYCHA developments that the city hadn’t reached yet. They pitched it to the city as a way to complement the city’s plan and close the digital divide faster. The city had been in talks with PCC as recently as December, according to emails reviewed by Motherboard, and PCC says it had secured private funding to keep the services free to taxpayers, along with subsidies in the federal infrastructure bill. 


Walcott says they even met with OTI in person and the city appeared to be on board, with plans to install high-speed internet at Edenwald, Elliot and Chelsea houses this year. Which is why he was surprised when an attorney representing the city emailed NYCHA and PCC with a request to have the broadband infrastructure at the Melrose Houses dismantled.

In a statement to Motherboard, OTI claimed that it had to step in due to a dispute between BlocPower and PCC.

“OTI and NYCHA continue to work together to increase access to broadband for public housing residents,” a spokesperson said in an email. “Following a legal dispute between existing internet service providers at Melrose Houses, the two agencies acted quickly to expand service through the city’s Big Apple Connect Program in an effort to ensure the continuity of access to free, high-speed internet and cable TV services to residents of the development. We remain committed to programs that increase access to fast and reliable internet for NYCHA’s families.”

Walcott said that the dispute has been resolved to the satisfaction of all parties and has no bearing on current circumstances, and said OTI is “misrepresenting the status of the equipment currently in NYCHA.”

”There is no legal dispute as to the ownership of the equipment in NYCHA. All of the equipment currently in Melrose Houses, much of which is still providing residents with free internet service, is fully owned by People’s Choice Communications,” he said.


“This is a policy choice that would favor large internet providers over ISPs,” he added.

There are key differences between PCC’s services and Big Apple Connect. Through a community ownership model, PCC planned on assembling an advisory board at every NYCHA complex to represent the interests of residents and workers, who would collaboratively make decisions on things like rate increases. 

“To make sure that rates never go crazy again…we have two people at the table with the workers, who want to make sure they have fair wages and a job, and you have customers (on the board) who want good quality and low prices,” Walcott said. While the Big Apple Connect plan will be free for three years, the Adams administration has not said what will happen after that, which has raised alarm from residents.

“They already know what's going to happen once Big Apple Connect runs out, what the cable companies are gonna do to them again,” Walcott said. “Also they liked our service like, we are community based company, people like seeing that.”

Charter’s operations in NYC have long been controversial, not least because of their fight with the union. In 2018 they settled a lawsuit filed by the New York Attorney General’s office alleging that their internet speeds were 80 percent slower than advertised. The company had to pay $174.2 million, including payments to 700,000 of their customers ranging between $75 to $150, which the Attorney General’s office called the largest ever consumer settlement from an internet service provider.

In addition to the loss of choices for residents when NYCHA is handed off to large service providers, Walcott is disturbed by the city’s decision because it will result in layoffs for the locally-hired workforce maintaining infrastructure. 

“The people who are working for us also lose their jobs…so I don't really can't understand what's going on with this,” Walcott said.

Update: This story has been updated with comment from OTI and additional comment from PCC.