New York City is in the process of dismantling low-cost community broadband infrastructure in public housing that, if supported, could provide quality access to the internet for hundreds of thousands of families. It’s being replaced by a $90 million, three-year government subsidy, called “Big Apple Connect” that instead gives a contract to big internet providers Optimum and Spectrum Communications (Charter).
This existing broadband network was built in 2021 mainly by three community cooperatives: Metro IAF, BlocPower and People’s Choice Communications (PCC). These cooperatives built this network after former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced New York City’s Internet Master Plan in January 2020, which set out to deliver broadband for low-income New Yorkers by investing in public fiber infrastructure. Since, then, the pandemic in 2020 exposed a digital divide that the current mayor’s office knows it must attempt to bridge. Yet instead of building off the network infrastructure already installed, it appears the Mayor’s Office of Technology and Innovation (OTI) is choosing to tear it down. In its place, the city is giving this massive three-year contract to big telecom companies—including one that has previously been untruthful to New York residents.
Cable Already Failed NYC
Charter, the parent company of Spectrum, has been controversial in New York State for years. This is not only because of their five-year front-page fights with unions, but also because the company has a bad track record when it comes to meeting their promises. Charter Communications had to pay $174.2 million in a settlement with then New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood’s office, following a 2017 lawsuit in which the New York Attorney General’s office sued the internet provider over misleading claims of internet speeds. The lawsuit, which was then led by Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, stated that speeds were up to 80 percent slower than Spectrum had advertised. Included in that $174.2 million settlement were payments to 700,000 of their customers, ranging between $75 to $150. The Attorney General’s office at the time called it “the largest ever consumer settlement from an internet service provider.”
All that has made many New Yorkers very skeptical of Spectrum. That's one reason why alternative options from community cooperatives were so attractive. In fact, PCC’s origins are grounded in that worker strike: it was founded by members of IBEW Local 3 who went on strike in 2017 and started the cooperative to cover needs in the city that Spectrum wasn't. Now PCC is now being told to take down their infrastructure, while this low-cost community broadband program is being scrapped in favor of a deal that potentially lands Charter half of a $90 million dollar contract. For many, that's seen as a slap in the face. It certainly doesn't help cable's already bad reputation with consumers and workers in NYC.
Future of NYC Broadband
People deserve access to the community-owned broadband infrastructure that was in place. They were satisfied with the service and trusted a co-op model of ownership that offered an alternative to the big cable companies. After all, there are major differences between Big Apple Connect and PCC’s services. For one, PCC’s offers internet service for $10-$20 a month. It also offered people who receive their service the chance to share in the cooperative’s decision-making: in keeping with its community ownership model, PCC was planning to assemble an advisory board at every New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) complex to collaborate residents and workers about things like rate increases. Now, residents must ask “what happens after ‘Big Apple Connect’ runs out?” They also worry their rates will go back up again after the program ends, and that these cable companies will again take advantage of them.
A temporary three-year contract might actually make this situation, and the issue of systemic digital redlining (an industry practice EFF has called for governments to ban) in NYC, worse. When the contract is up all of these low-income households will be without a low-cost broadband option and dependent only on the major telecom companies— who would never raise rates and deliver slower speeds, right?