New York abandons $157 million broadband plan, leaving vendors in disarray

The proposal was drafted by the de Blasio administration and in October 2021, a dozen companies were notified that they would be chosen for the jobs. But funding and contract details were still up in the air when Mayor Eric Adams took office in January.

“All of our hard work was undone with a handshake and a stroke of a pen,” said Marg Suarez, who worked on RFP with NYC Mesh. A nonprofit community Wi-Fi provider, NYC Mesh has been involved in months of talks with the city about what would be an approximately $8 million project to expand connectivity to neighborhoods underserved by fast broadband.

The New York City Office of Technology and Innovation said the decision not to award candidates a contract was consistent with goals Adams’ remodeled technology departmentwho decided to prioritize the short-term needs of New Yorkers who lack of internet access.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s goals around Internet accessibility were formalized in the Internet Master Plan, a January 2020 document focused on adding diversity and competition to the market for Internet service providers while expanding the population of New Yorkers unable to afford broadband service at home and at work. Mayor Adams’ goals were different.

“From the beginning, this administration has prioritized underprivileged communities in our efforts to provide equitable access to broadband,” OTI spokesman Ryan Birchmeier said in a statement provided to by Crain. He pointed to the Big Apple Connect program. Launched in September, it made free broadband service available to 90,000 households living in 130 New York City Housing Authority housing developments through partnerships with Optimum and Spectrum.

Birchmeier also highlighted the likelihood of a future RFP for a permanent broadband provider to “establish strategic management of city resources and ensure revenue streams are directed towards funding equitable access to the latest broadband technology for all New Yorkers”.

The office is in the process of figuring out where the $157 million in capital earmarked for the previous plan will go, he said.

There are only a handful of large ISPs in New York City, due in part to the upfront expense of laying fiber-optic cable under the concrete of a crowded city. As a result, big providers including Altice, Charter Communications, and Verizon are often the only players in a given neighborhood, and their bundled plans can go as high as $80 a month, often for a faster connection than most residents, even if they work or take classes at home.

The Internet Master Plan sought to share the city’s infrastructure, including hospital shelters, with a group of smaller providers, many run by women or minorities, who could use the physical structures to extend networks of cables or nodes. The goal was to reach another 1.6 million residents.

The city’s October 2021 announcement of the winning vendors, including NYC Mesh, appeared to be a big step forward.

“We were in talks then,” Suarez said. “We have made an account with the Municipality for the disbursements. They gave us introductions. But the funds weren’t there.

No progress has been made in the winter and spring, he said. Then, in September, the city introduced Big Apple Connects, and in October, OTI’s strategic plan arrived. At the time, Suarez said, there were whispers that the RFP would never be satisfied.

Suarez said NYC Mesh will continue with its current, mostly volunteer-run node creation, using some of the connections and access to the city’s infrastructure gained in the process. But, he said, the expansion would have been much faster with the funding provided.

The Adams administration, which took office during a spate of Covid-19 cases that have kept many New Yorkers at home, stressed it needed to address short-term access issues before working on more difficult infrastructure issues. Over the summer, it announced 2,000 new Link5G kiosks, as well as a group of Gigabit Centers, free spaces with high-speed internet. One is managed by Silicon Harlem, another one of the RFP applicants.

The change seemed counterproductive to a group of equity-minded new vendors, who said opening up the market to more players was key.

“We believe a thriving and competitive broadband market that offers New Yorkers, and all Americans, a choice of Internet service providers is absolutely critical,” said Virginia Lam Abrams, executive vice president of government affairs and strategic progress at Starry, a vendor that partnered with the city for low-cost access for NYCHA residents but did not participate in the RFP. “Politically speaking, if we are serious about taking meaningful steps towards permanently closing the digital divide, then increasing competition and choice needs to be part of the political conversation and dialogue.”

While priorities and strategies leave room for debate, the bigger problem is that a project as expensive and major as new broadband is likely to outlast any administration. Building the right infrastructure in Brooklyn alone could take 15 years, Prashanth Vijay, co-founder and CEO of Midtown’s Flume Internet, told the “Divide” podcast this month.

“It’s a challenge to go into that project knowing that IT or transportation authorities might change two or three times in the course of that project,” Vijay said.