City could see more internet providers. Is it enough to help bridge the digital divide?

New York City residents could soon have more options when they choose an internet service provider.

The City Council passed a resolution at its Dec. 17 meeting that is expected to diversify the pool of internet providers and deliver online service to more New Yorkers at lower cost. However, some don’t think the changes are substantial enough.

Currently, the city has franchise agreements with only three providers – Altice (Optimum), Spectrum (formerly Time Warner Cable) and Verizon. No part of the city offers all three.

District 17 Councilman Rafael Salamanca Jr. said the limited choices consumers have in choosing an internet provider contributes to the digital divide, especially in the South Bronx. Those providers, he said, amount to monopolies.

“Many families are living paycheck-to-paycheck,” he said in a phone interview. “They have to identify what their immediate needs are, and many times if they have a cell phone, that’s their internet. Not many families can afford to have internet and cable. And now that kids are doing remote learning, they need some type of Wi-Fi connectivity. It’s a struggle for poor communities such as mine.”

Salamanca chairs the City Council’s Land Use Committee, which brought the resolution to the Council’s full board.

Twenty-three percent of homes in Hunts Point and Mott Haven are without internet access, the fifth lowest connectivity rates in the city, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 American Community Survey. Borough Park in Brooklyn has the most homes without internet, 33.4%. Murray Hill in Manhattan has the lowest rate, with just 4.1%.

New providers could create competition and lower service costs, but is it enough?

Longwood resident Desiree Frias is a campaign director for People’s Bailout, a group that advocates for more robust federal funding to relieve pandemic-related hardships. She does all of her work online and relies on the internet to stay in touch with her family as well.

“This pandemic has made it clear that internet is not a luxury. It’s a necessity,” said Frias in a phone interview, adding that to  internet access should be expanded at little or no cost to consumers, to reflect the importance of the net for all. Her basic internet package, provided by Verizon, costs her $75 a month. “It’s a lot.”

NYC Mesh, a provider offering free internet access without collecting data from its users, is an example of a service that benefits the community, while still being able to make a profit. 

“This is a pivotal moment. We really have an opportunity to look at internet, hopefully not the way we look at electricity since power in our city is also a monopoly through Con Edison,” she said. “People deserve choice. People deserve flexibility for this necessity.”

Ariadna Phillips, who teaches computer science at MSHS 223, the Laboratory School of Finance & Technology, in Mott Haven, sees a gap in logic with the current education system. Kids are required to go to school. Schools now conduct classes online due to COVID-19. Therefore, online access should be free for families whose children are in school.

“This is now a dignity and rights issue about children not being able to go to school,” said Phillips.

More internet providers isn’t necessarily going to fix the digital divide.

“I’m not putting my faith and confidence in private companies,” she said. “We need universal internet access for public school students.”

At the start of the pandemic, multiple providers including Altice said they would offer free internet to students impacted by the coronavirus. Phillips said it wasn’t that simple, though. She often had to step in as a translator for families looking to get internet and would spend hours on the phone with Altice representatives.

“They would try to run a check on the family and say, ‘Oh, at this address 10 years ago, someone didn’t pay the bill, so we’re not going to give you internet access unless you pay that past-due bill from a previous tenant,’ or ‘You’re past due now, so we’re not going to give you access,’” she said. “It was every paywall imaginable.”

In the spring, the city Department of Education set up a program that would deliver iPads with pre-paid internet access to students who needed them. Phillips said students are still only now just receiving the tablets.

In a statement, the Commissioner of the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, Jessica Tisch, said that “the City can now take the next steps toward creating a more robust, open broadband market that will be key to driving down consumer costs and bridging the digital divide.”

“We have kids trying on cell phones as best they can,” Phillips said. “Sometimes that means just dialing in to listen to the class without a way of completing the work.”

She’s taken it upon herself to fix the problem. Through her work with the school and South Bronx Mutual Aid, Phillips has secured plenty of hotspots and devices for students and families.

“Unfortunately, official channels just couldn’t do it, or they couldn’t do it fast enough,” she said. “The system has not met the need.”

This story was updated on Jan. 5 to add comment from the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications.