In 2013, when now-New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio ran for office, part of his platform was a five-year proposal to expand the city's technology infrastructure in the hope of providing universal and high-quality internet access to all New York households, 27% of which still do not have access to the internet. Today, his administration announced a round of initiatives that act on that promise.
"I think it's pretty well-recognized if you don't have internet access today it's very difficult to participate in today's economy," Chief Technology Officer Minerva Tantoco told BuzzFeed News. "[In] your day-to-day life internet access has become as basic as electricity in your home. So try and imagine if you were someone who is trying to find your job without a way to apply for a job online or fix your résumé."
To start, the de Blasio administration — led by Tantoco, Counsel to the Mayor Maya Wiley, and Commissioner of the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) Anne Roest — has created two senior-level positions within the administration to focus specifically on broadband and telecommunications. The first, deputy commissioner for telecommunications planning at DoITT, will be filled by Alphonso Jenkins, a New York native and former employee of the broadband, IP, and cloud networking company Alcatel-Lucent. Joshua Breitbart, the former director of field operations at the New America Foundation, is filling the second new position as special adviser for broadband in the office of the mayor.
Second, the de Blasio administration is announcing an open call for proposals and suggestions on how to provide affordable and high-quality broadband to underserved communities. The "Call for Innovations" will last until June 30 and is seeking proposals from tech companies, entrepreneurs, smaller internet service providers, and other parties that may be knowledgable about precisely how the city can use existing infrastructure or new technologies to accomplish the administration's ultimate goal.
The administration will review these proposals with the help of the Broadband Task Force, announced last year. After providing assistance to those who submit ideas, the administration and the task force will decide on a final group of proposals that will be developed into prototypes and demonstrations. The Broadband Task Force will be responsible for developing and helping the administration implement policy ideas and a citywide broadband strategy, in addition to reviewing proposals submitted in response to the call for initiatives.
"We recognized we needed a multidisciplinary group of people," said Wiley, who is spearheading the task force. "We need people who understand technology, we need people who understand how to get projects done and financed, and we need people who know how to get it off the ground in low-income communities."
Wiley said the administration recognizes that the city cannot solely rely on public financing in order to achieve universal and affordable connectivity. So it tapped venture capitalists such as Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures and Jalak Jobanputra of Future Perfect Ventures to join the task force. Joining Jobanputra and Wilson are a number of industry executives in the private, academic, and nonprofit sectors.
Here are the members of the Broadband Task Force:
These initiatives were not solely developed to bridge inequality within the city and bring the utility of the internet to lower-income communities, Wiley told BuzzFeed News. "If we're starting to solve some of these digital divide issues, we're also going to be helping figure out how to help everyone," she said. "We're paying significantly more for broadband access than other major cities around the globe. ... We get slower speeds and potentially pay up to $300 a month depending on your service providers — that's something that should change even for people who can afford it."
This new round of steps is significant, but it's certainly not the first stab at universal connectivity in New York City. In November 2014, the mayor's office announced LinkNYC — an initiative that would turn all existing pay phones into Wi-Fi hotspots. In December 2014, Google donated $1 million toward a program that would provide 10,000 Wi-Fi devices to city libraries that would in turn lend it out to New Yorkers.
"This is one of my favorite things about being CTO," Tantoco told BuzzFeed News. "We are focused on making New York one of the most innovative cities in the world. We are the home of innovation and we are continuing to build on Mayor de Blasio's plan to make this a tech friendly and innovative city.
"In government, the typical model is: We figure out what we need, we design it, we send it out, and we pick the lowest bidder. This time we're saying, 'Hey, here's our problem, you guys. Give us some solutions to this and then we'll figure out how to tackle the issue of broadband connectivity.'"