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COVID Worsened the Digital Divide, Leaders in One Smart City are Fixing That

What defines a smart city? Is it a chrome utopia straight out of a Ray Bradbury novel? Is it a metropolis where hoverboards zipping past talking trash cans and holographic street lights are an everyday sight? When we think about smart cities, we often think about urban infrastructure laced with technology, yet wiring convenient gadgetry on every street corner requires a consistent connection in order for smart cities to live up to their potential. Electronic growth is supposed to go hand-in-hand with connectivity, so a reliable internet connection is the backbone of any technology that could improve the quality of life for a smart city’s residents. But if connectivity is the core of the smart city infrastructure, then a lack of universal connectivity does more than shave off a few metaphorical IQ points.

Digital domain

Internet access has transformed how we communicate and who we communicate with. That connectivity has also transformed how we educate ourselves, how we govern our cities, and how we run our businesses. It empowers people to improve their quality of life by allowing readily-available access to information that was previously inaccessible. In the end, internet access is a function to bolster the lives of those who use it, just like smart cities enhance the lifestyles of their residents. However, internet connectivity in the U.S. is lackluster at best, 42 million people still do not have access to broadband internet.

When we think about limited connectivity, we often think about rural areas far removed from any bustling urban locale, and that observation is not without merit. Rural states like West Virginia, Wyoming, and Montana have the slowest internet speeds in the U.S. Montana’s, in particular, moves at a glacial pace. According to a survey by HighSpeedInternet.com, which collected data from 3,105 U.S. cities and towns (as well as more than 1.7 million laptops, desktop computers, and home-connected devices), Montana was last of all 50 states and the District of Columbia. 

The glaring difference between internet speeds in a city compared to the internet speeds in a rural area became painfully obvious after the onset of COVID-19. Everything from businesses to schools to city council meetings and court hearings shifted online and became almost inaccessible to anyone whose wonky internet connection couldn’t handle a Zoom call. It wasn’t uncommon for people to turn their cars into makeshift offices or classrooms in a Starbucks or McDonald’s parking lot.

The crisis really hit home, literally, for the many people who had to shift to remote work opted to migrate to a more rural area. Several of them merely assumed that they would have the same level of digital infrastructure and internet speeds. Rebecca Davis, a woman who was interviewed by Bloomberg, lamented about never realizing that she would need to check on whether or not her new home would have a decent internet connection. “Having come from a city area where WiFi is readily available, we hadn’t really considered that [fast internet] wouldn’t be an option when purchasing our house.” Davis was not pleased to realize that she would only have access to spotty dial-up in her home, so you can imagine the headaches she faced during the height of the pandemic when her whole family struggled to keep up with remote work and schooling. 

Despite advancements in wireless technology, and the influx of people who recently moved to rural areas, in a world where internet monopolies are allowed to operate and set their own market parameters, there isn’t enough financial incentive for companies to extend their infrastructure to those regions.

Slow internet speeds can derail worker productivity (both at home and the office) and reduce the functionality of municipal services, which is why internet connectivity has hurriedly shifted from a luxury to a fundamental right. Fast and reliable internet connectivity has become such an important feature of residential and commercial properties that it’s a necessity on par with electricity. Even before the massive paradigm shift in workplace policies occurred where hybrid and remote working are now the norm, tenants of every type expect to have reliable high-speed internet, so much so that internet connectivity boosts property values. A 2019 CoStar study revealed that commercial buildings with fiber connectivity can experience a property value increase of up to 7 percent, and residential home values usually increase anywhere from 3 to 8 percent. 

But quantifying the value of internet access doesn’t stop at real estate perks. Access to high-speed internet propagates major economic growth, which is why it’s so surprising that New York City, which has one of the most mature technology bases of any smart city in the world, is severely lacking in internet connectivity.

Commercial buildings with fiber connectivity can experience a property value increase of up to 7 percent, and residential home values usually increase anywhere from 3 to 8 percent. 

Unwired

New York City is notorious for its uneven internet access, despite an initiative launched by then-mayor Mike Bloomberg back in 2008. Bloomberg had privately signed a deal with Verizon that was supposed to result in Verizon wiring every residential building (at least those who wanted it) with its FiOS fiber-optic service. Bloomberg’s agreement with Verizon was hailed as a venture that would prompt competition, ending the local monopoly held by then-Time Warner Cable, now Spectrum. Major ISP companies often cherry-pick the more affluent areas and leave lower-income neighborhoods in the lurch, which is exactly what Spectrum had done, causing New York City to be dubbed as a “slow internet hellscape.” With no company to compete with, Spectrum had, as monopolistic ISPs are wont to do, charged rates that were so high that they were ultimately out of financial reach for many New Yorkers. The opportunity of a non-discriminate internet connection that would be offered at competitive pricing felt like nothing short of a godsend. 

Verizon had promised to have every neighborhood wired by 2014, and yet, that promise was never fulfilled, one egregious example of this is the state of internet connectivity in Harlem. Despite the neighborhood’s proximity to some historical bastions of knowledge (Columbia University is literally a five-minute walk away), in 2014, the Upper Manhattan neighborhood did not have internet access for a whopping 40 percent of its residents. 

Apparently, wiring every residential building with FiOS became a logistical nightmare. The idea was that Verizon was supposed to lay the internet wire down so that anyone who decided that they wanted to buy FiOS service could do so after the fact. What ultimately happened was that Verizon laid down their fiber-optic cable along New York City’s avenues, and not the side streets, where the cable would need to be laid building-by-building, which would necessitate approval from each individual landlord. Though tenants would eagerly ask for FiOS, many landlords were deterred by the installation costs and decided against it. The years ticked by and resident New Yorkers grew more and more irate waiting for FiOS. The collective frustration was so palpable that it became a cultural phenomenon, percolating into Reply All episodes and Saturday Night Live skits

But it’s not just Verizon’s mangling of their FiOS initiative that’s left internet connectivity in the boroughs lacking. Many areas in New York City rely on copper-wired telecommunication lines, which have long since been phased out. Without proper upkeep, those wires corrode, leaving residents without internet connection and no way to replace it thanks to the monopolistic market that Verizon failed to disrupt with their FiOS initiative. 

New York City eventually sued Verizon in 2017 for reneging on their agreement with Bloomberg, and the embittered battle between the two continued until the pandemic forced everyone online. Even in one of the greatest cities in the world, the digital divide was so catastrophic that residents in New York City without the internet were struggling to work and learn just as much as their rural counterparts. In an effort to bridge that gap, then-mayor Bill de Blasio worked towards a settlement with Verizon in an effort to streamline connectivity. Verizon settled its lawsuit in November of 2020 by agreeing to build out its FiOS footprint to 500,000 additional residents in New York City. As nice as that may sound, with Verizon’s tortoise-paced track record, by the time those FiOS lines are finally down, the pandemic will have long ended.

Click click boom

NYC Mesh’s supernode 1 is located at 375 Pearl St, New York, NY. This site is located in Lower Manhattan on the old Verizon Building and the coverage area extends across the East Village and to areas of Brooklyn.

New York City residents fed up with unreliable (or even nonexistent) internet thanks to the Goliath of monopolistic internet could have a David in the form of a tech-savvy volunteer organization. NYC Mesh is one of the nonprofits that offer a “DIY” alternative in the form of installing a wireless node on a customer’s rooftop. That node would connect to a nearby node that’s sitting on another building in the vicinity. This system of nodes eventually connects to a few primary exchange points known as “supernodes,” which enable direct internet connectivity without the need for any large internet providers to act as intermediaries. Though in order for guerilla internet to be a viable option, a customer must be within range of another node. Also, two of the four original supernodes are currently inactive, having been removed for roof repairs and never reinstalled. NYC Mesh isn’t the only community broadband cooperative around, and the market isn’t limited to New York City either. Starry, an enterprise started by Chet Kanojia, Silicon Valley’s “disruptor” poster-boy, operates in Boston. 

One not-for-profit organization has realized that internet access alone is not enough to truly create a smart city. Clayton Banks, the co-founder and CEO of Silicon Harlem, knows that you need to invest in the residents as much as you do the tech. Silicon Harlem is a civic organization that aims to transform Harlem into an equal-access hub of technology and innovation. Remember, Harlem did not have internet access for 40 percent of its residents in 2014, the year of Silicon Harlem’s inception. 

Silicon Harlem, dubbed a “for-profit social venture that leads with the heart,” partners with other nonprofits, academics, and the private sector to create digital literacy workshops and fund broadband deployment. Silicon Harlem has a four-pronged approach to its outreach: prioritizing community infrastructure, providing digital literacy training, working side-by-side with local universities, and ensuring that people in the community understand that connectivity is an economic driver.

The keystone of their mission is to increase internet access for Harlem’s residents by partnering with broadband providers to offer top-notch Web infrastructure to their community. Their latest project, Gigabit Harlem, has culminated into a physical space open to the public and caters to startups, community organizations, and local businesses. The campus provides internet access, after-school programs, tech workforce training, and research opportunities thanks to a partnership between the City of New York and several other non-profit organizations. That venture culminated in the opening of the Gigabit Innovation Center less than two weeks ago.

“Our goal was to design a space that lives up to Silicon Harlem’s powerful mantra: everyone needs a connection,” says Karen Zabarsky, founder and principal of Ground Up, the studio behind the design of the center. “We worked to strike a balance between futuristic, high-tech features that would create a sense of wonder, and empathetic design principles of warmth, openness, and collaboration that would make those ideas and technologies feel accessible.”

NYC Mesh and Silicon Harlem are certainly not the only organizations that strive to provide internet to communities that don’t have it, but the fact that these ventures even need to exist shows us that monopolistic internet providers have prevented smart cities (and even smart towns) from seeing their full economic potential. After grappling with this pandemic, we understand now more than ever that fast, reliable internet is not only absolutely essential for modern life, it’s the defining asset of a smart city. Smart cities thrive on constant connection and real-time data, which is completely moot if there are pockets without adequate connection. In the words of Clayton Banks, “You absolutely cannot call yourself a smart city if people aren’t fully connected.”

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