NYC Internet Master Plan Offers Strategy for Metro Cities Confronting Broadband Monopolies

The pandemic exacerbated extreme economic, racial, and social disparities that have long characterized New York City neighborhoods. When the pandemic hit, the "City That Never Sleeps" experienced the worst single-year job decline since the 1930s, with communities of color bearing the brunt of the disease itself in addition to the rising levels of unemployment, lack of affordable housing, and food insecurity it brought on. 

Aiming to alleviate these deeply-entrenched challenges, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio formed the Taskforce on Racial Inclusion and Equity last April to survey community organizations in NYC districts most severely impacted by COVID-19. As that work got underway, taskforce co-chair Deputy Mayor Phil Thompson kept hearing a resounding call for access to the Internet. Three months into the pandemic, de Blasio reported that 18 percent of all New Yorkers, more than 1.5 million city residents, had neither a home or a mobile connection, mainly due to issues of affordability. 

In response to the public outcry, Mayor de Blasio set to work enacting New York City’s Internet Master Plan, starting with a $157 million initiative which will direct public and private investment to fund broadband infrastructure and expand low-cost or no-cost Internet access to 600,00 New Yorkers, including 200,000 city residents living in public housing, within 18 months.

The implementation of the Master Plan comes as the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) released revised Design Guidelines requiring new affordable housing projects that use city funds to be “designed and constructed to provide high-quality [I]nternet access and service as part of their lease contract and at no additional cost to the tenant…with preferred system capacity of 100 Megabits per Second (Mbps) upload and download, per unit.” 

Meanwhile, New York City is set to receive $6 billion in direct fiscal relief from the American Rescue Plan Act, while the state is primed to get $12 billion of its own. The incoming funding will help shore up both city and state government budgets, as well as jumpstart initiatives aimed at evening out lopsided economic development. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo already approved a $5.5 billion state budget for Fiscal Year 2022 which integrates multiple initiatives originally introduced in NYC’s Internet Master Plan. For example, the recently approved budget requires all Internet Service Providers (ISPs) who serve 20,000 customers or more in New York to offer at least a 25/3 Megabits per second broadband service option for eligible low-income state residents for $15 per month.

Features of the Internet Master Plan

New York City’s Internet Master Plan is the first effort of any large urban city in the United States to strategize the delivery of equitable Internet access to all city inhabitants. 

The plan offers a deliberate, carefully thought-out model for metro cities to introduce competition into residential and commercial broadband markets, alleviate discrepancies in the quality and pricing of service, and expand public broadband to create high-speed citywide access.

The Master Plan directs the Mayor’s Chief Technology Officer and the New York City Economic Development Corporation to become more active partners with the private sector. The city will invest in broadband infrastructure to be managed and operated in partnership with private ISPs. The plan calls for prioritizing public-private partnerships with minority and women-owned service providers as well as nonprofits and community-based organizations to pave the way for smaller entities to enter the marketplace. These new entrants will be tasked with constructing fiber networks in New York’s least-served regions, creating competition and driving down costs to subscribers.

New York City’s Economic Development Corporation and Department of Small Business Services recently issued an RFP seeking proposals from ISPs interested in constructing and managing fiber optic deployments on behalf of the city. The RFP seeks to establish “the rapid and equitable deployment of low-cost broadband service across New York City, particularly in Target Neighborhoods,” as identified by the Mayor’s Task Force on Racial Inclusion and Equity, and “areas with the lowest broadband connectivity rates,” as identified by the NYC Internet Master Plan. 

The plan goes beyond accelerating community-based broadband efforts to address the variety of factors contributing to the monopolization of New York’s broadband market by three major ISPs. Aspects of the plan aim to establish broadband franchises to ensure incumbent ISPs pay their fair share for access to rights-of-way, train hundreds of young people from hard-hit communities as certified broadband technicians to install and operate network infrastructure, and bolster digital inclusion and digital rights programs to ensure all New Yorkers benefit from the newfound connectivity. 

To boost the effects of the Master Plan, Mayor de Blasio’s office worked with Sen. Kevin Parker, D-21, to introduce S.B. 8845, legislation that would create broadband franchises similar to cable franchises, in order to collect revenue on rights-of-way that incumbent ISPs access for little or no cost. 

“Right now, a few companies hold a monopoly on providing Internet service and they don’t pay a dime to use city infrastructure to provide broadband,” said Mayor de Blasio, during a Media Availability session. “We’re going to fight for a new state law to force Internet companies to actually pay the city of New York for the use of our streets. They’re profiting, but they’re not paying their fair share. We need them to and we would use that money to provide even more broadband access for those that don’t have it.”

It is projected that once the city’s Internet Master Plan is fully implemented, New York City will gain up to 165,000 new jobs, $142 billion in incremental gross metropolitan product, and $49 billion in personal income, as individuals previously locked out of the digital economy are able to access it. 

Funding for Master Plan Taken From NYPD Capital Budget 

Mayor de Blasio’s call for directing funds to Internet access came in 2020 after weeks of nationwide protests sparked by the violent police killing of George Floyd. Amidst desperate calls to defund the police, de Blasio announced that $87 million of the $157 million allocated for the broadband initiative would be taken out of the New York Police Department’s capital budget. 

The repurposing of funds from the city’s police department to back initiatives proposed in the Internet Master Plan is a symbolic effort to diminish racial and economic divides. It is one critical step forward in expanding social mobility opportunities for low-income residents longing for racial economic justice. 

Image of Marcy Public Housing complex courtesy of Wikimedia user Jim Henderson via Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

Image of Stealth Communications installing fiber in Manhatten courtesy of Wikimedia user Stealth Communications via Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.