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LinkNYC: Free WiFi, Digital Inequality, and the State of Net Neutrality

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LinkNYC: Free WiFi, Digital Inequality, and the State of Net Neutrality

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New York joined the likes of San Jose and Raleigh as they revealed plans to begin working on city-wide free WiFi in 2015 on November 17 at City Hall. If the plan is approved by the city’s Franchise and Concession Review Committee and Controller Scott Stringer, then the city will replace its payphones with sleek silver WiFi hubs, called “Links.” According to Business Insider, the Links will offer:

...free Wi-Fi [running] at up to gigabit speeds...free phone calls within the U.S., access to 311 and 911, a free charging station for your phone, and a touchscreen tablet interface so users can access directions and city services.

The $200 million project, called LinkNYC, will reportedly cost nothing to taxpayers, as it will generate all of its revenue via the ads attached to the Links with an estimated revenue of $500 million (over the next twelve years). WiFiLinks will be placed throughout the city in all five boroughs. The press kit released by CityBridge describes the project as a way to “bridge the divide”:

LinkNYC will bring the world’s fastest, free municipal Wi-Fi to millions of New Yorkers, small businesses and visitors in all five boroughs. It helps span the divide between people of various physical, technical and financial abilities to connect all New Yorkers to the opportunities that Internet access affords.

Mockup of a Link.

The Verge’s T.C. Sottek describes the partnership that got LinkNYC up and running “public-private”; the NYC Mayor’s Office of Technology and Innovation and the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications teamed up with private companies CityBridge, Qualcomm, and Titan.

If Titan sounds familiar to you, that’s because the outdoor media company got in trouble in October for putting tracker beacons in pay phones without the city’s knowledge or permission. Oh, and they got in fired by the Metropolitan Transit Authority for defaulting on payments and non-compliant financial reporting in 2010.

And if it seems a little odd that the city would choose to partner up with Titan, it gets even murkier. According to the NY Daily News, the WiFi running at “gigabit speeds” (aka Google Fiber-worthy) will actually only be doing so in the wealthiest neighborhoods of the city. While affluent areas will get the 1 gigabyte/second speed, poorer areas will get about 100 megabytes. Writes Greg B. Smith:

Mayor de Blasio’s “five-borough Wi-Fi Network” will operate 10 times slower in Staten Island and poorer neighborhoods of Brooklyn and the Bronx, a Daily News examination found.

The speedier systems are flanked by advertising — and advertisers prefer wealthier eyes. As a result, all of the 2,500-plus locations in Manhattan are high speed, giving the borough with 20% of the city’s population fully 65% of all the fast kiosks.

Meanwhile, the Bronx will get speedy Wi-Fi at 361 kiosks — just 6% of the fast Wi-Fi stations in the city. The borough will have slower service at 375 non-advertising kiosks, which replace old payphones.

Additionally, the Daily News reports, these lower-income areas tend to have a larger black and Hispanic population (to compare, Manhattan is 65% white, 25.8% Hispanic, and 18.4% black):

In Melrose's Community Board 3, where the population is 85% black or Hispanic and 61% receive public assistance, just four of the former payphones will get the speedy service.

And in Brownsville’s community board, where the population is 93% black or Hispanic and 50% receive public assistance, just 10 payphones will get the speedy service. In Bedford-Stuyvesant’s Community Board 3, which is 77% black or Hispanic, there are 11 speedy payphones. In Crown Heights’ Community Board 8, where 79% of the residents are black or Hispanic, there are nine.

Just a few miles away [from Brownsville] is Brooklyn’s Community Board 2, which is 60% white and where only 19% receive public assistance. Those neighborhoods — DUMBO, Brooklyn Heights and Fort Greene — will get 59 superfast payphones.

The decision to put the better WiFi in more affluent areas of the city isn’t surprising, and makes sense from a marketing standpoint; more people, tourists especially, will use the Links in Time Square, and the ads are more likely to be seen, as well. For example: In the case of Google Fiber, free WiFi has been given to cities that will seemingly make the most use of it in its industries and businesses, as all of the Google Fiber Cities are on Forbes’ list of Best Places for Businesses.

Yet even so, as Sottek writes in his latest article, it seems wrong to purport a project as something that will benefit the public and bring WiFi for all when, really, only the areas with the most money will get the most benefit - especially considering the demographics of those areas. Sottek says:

[It]...makes sense for profit-seeking businesses to build around, but not so much for public-facing utilities that ought to provide reasonably equal levels of service to everyone.

As Susan Crawford argues, US mayors have a great opportunity to bring municipal broadband service to millions of Americans who have been abused or neglected by monopolistic internet service providers.

Describing WiFi as a “public-facing” utility furthers the discussion surrounding net neutrality; earlier this month, President Obama proposed making WiFi a public utility, thereby cutting out corporations who have created fast-lanes to intimidate servers and customers into paying more. This step only takes us up to par with other countries around the world, as other countries have been offering WiFi as a public service for some time now. Business Insider’s list of the nine best cities with free WiFi has only one American city on the list (Figure A).

By only targeting the areas that will make the most money, the proposed project is a squandered opportunity to level the playing field for lower income areas. Even though the public-private effort may have needed to focus on getting the most revenue for now, since they reportedly couldn’t afford to put fast wifi in every payphone in the city, shouldn’t a project that incorporates governmental departments be for the people instead of profits?

The mayor’s office reports that these slower speeds will only be temporary - but, Smith writes, the slower speeds will reportedly be overwhelmed by so many users, although Maya Wiley, counsel to the mayor, describes it as a “good incremental step.” Furthermore, since the project has yet to be approved and, if passed, will still not be up and running until late 2015, that means an even longer wait for lower income communities who need more access.

So all that talk about connecting everyone to “all the opportunities that Internet access affords”? It seems to me that Manhattan, with its $68,370 median income, probably already has all of those opportunities at home - in contrast to the Bronx's $34,300.

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