April 19 - May 2, 2007
Hearing Airs Details of Borough’s
City Gathers Info to Bring High-Speed
Internet to the Masses
By ALEX KRATZ
and sometimes free, high-speed Internet access is coming to the Bronx – one
restaurant, building and neighborhood at a time.
The virtual reality is that there’s a digital divide between those who have
high-speed Internet access and those who don’t. That gap is widest in
working-class, low-income communities like much of the Bronx.
“Go down to St. Ann’s Avenue and you might as well be in Mogadishu,” said
John McMullen, a technology professor at Monroe College, “but up in
Riverdale, it’s terrific. The wealthy neighborhoods find ways.”
In 2006, only 21 percent of households with an annual income of $30,000 or
less had a broadband, or high-speed, Internet connection at home, according
to a report by the Pew Internet and American Life Project. At the same time,
68 percent of households earning more than $75,000 had broadband.
Starting with a hearing at Bronx Community College on March 30, the city
jump-started a public discussion on how to bridge the divide.
Interest in the subject is strong, judging by the hundreds of attendees and
hours of testimony at the hearing, which was the first of five (one in each
borough) that the City Council’s Broadband Advisory Committee will host.
Already a handful of groups are working to bring affordable (or free)
Internet access to some neighborhoods, but the committee is looking to
create a comprehensive plan that will benefit all New Yorkers from every
“We’re dovetailing with the mayor and the EDC (Economic Development
Corporation) to find out what people really want,” said Council Member Gale
Brewer, the Upper West Sider who heads the Council’s Technology Committee
and created the advisory committee two years ago.
After all the hearings, an EDC-hired consultant will advise the mayor on how
the city should move forward.
Students and seniors
From the testimony, Brewer said it became apparent that both students and
seniors, particularly those who are low income, are underserved.
“The Internet can be a veritable lifeline for homebound elderly,” said Tom
Kamber of Older Adults Technology Services, at the hearing. “Not only can
seniors access invaluable health and medical information, but they can
communicate with family members and friends.”
For students, consistent Internet access is increasingly about being
While some students have high-speed access at home, most are at the mercy of
school and public library computers, where access is free, but limited. Even
among public schools, there are glaring disparities between schools. Some
kids said they accessed the Internet three hours a day, while others said
they were lucky to be on-line, three hours a week.
Andrew Gallagher, a teacher at The Bronx Writing Academy, a school where 80
percent of the students are eligible for free and reduced lunch, testified
that his school has enjoyed success trying to integrate technology tools
into most subject areas, but inconsistent Internet connectivity is impeding
“Why should these kids be less educated and effectively relegated to second
class citizens?” said Dana Spiegel, the executive director of New York City
Wireless, a non-profit that has helped set up dozens of wireless “hotspots”
throughout the city, including at parks and apartment buildings.
Spiegel’s group has teamed up with Monroe, through McMullen’s Wireless
Technology class, to set up access in public places, including a Subway
restaurant on Fordham Road, The City Line Diner in Woodlawn and three city
Progress in Mt. Hope
There are other encouraging signs of Internet life in the Bronx. Shaun Belle
is the president and CEO of Mt. Hope Housing Company, which has wired 1,200
of its affordable housing units for high-speed access. The group partnered
with Verizon to do the installation and negotiated a deal allowing them to
offer broadband access to all of its residents for $12 a month, a fraction
of the normal cost.
Belle’s company also partnered with Per Scholas, a Bronx non-profit offering
low-cost technology to underserved communities, to provide Mt. Hope with 200
used computers. Also, the housing company provides its tenants with free
computer training so they can maximize their usage.
“The key is not just to provide the skeleton of the hardware and the
Internet, but to train families on how to use it to their advantage,” Belle
As a member of the Broadband Advisory Committee, Belle recently took a tour
of Japan, China and Taiwan to get a sense of how those countries are setting
up Internet access.
Belle found that Asia is far ahead of the United States in terms of
providing access, but how they are accomplishing it is not much different
than how he does it in the Bronx: by cutting deals with private providers.
The difference is Asian governments are taking a more active role by
negotiating with providers on a larger scale – one city at a time.
Unlike Mayor Bloomberg’s business-first approach to the Internet, Belle says
the city should start with underserved communities, where a lot of bright
young minds and talent is being wasted.
Groups like Belle’s are at the forefront, but they can’t cover the map on
their own. “The government has to step up to the plate,” he says.
The ‘wave of the future’
Still, no one knows exactly how the city should solve the digital divide,
hence the hearings. Other U.S. cities are trying different combinations of
public and private efforts, but no one has a magic potion, Spiegel said.
For now, Spiegel said, it’s up to smaller groups to wire the city, one
public space at a time.
Roberto Garcia, the director of the Jerome-Gun Hill Business Improvement
District (BID), is working with both Spiegel and Monroe to bring wireless
technology to Norwood.
“It’s the wave of the future,” Garcia said. Ultimately, Garcia wants all the
stores and apartment buildings in his BID to have high-speed wireless
Internet access, as well as Williamsbridge Oval Park, the neighborhood’s
“This will help bridge the digital divide,” Garcia said. “The kids are
already getting into it at school, but they can’t do anything once they get
home if their parents don’t have access. This will allow families to be more
informed and make better decisions.”
The biggest problem is the monthly fee, which can run up to $60 a month.
“The monthly cost could be the difference between a MetroCard for work or a
pair of sneakers for your kids,” said Garcia, who also works for Mosholu
Preservation Corporation, a partner in the BID’s efforts.
In the future, Garcia imagines local residents shopping digitally and
parents looking on-line for better jobs while watching their kids play
soccer in the park.
He’s starting by installing wireless technology from Verizon at the VIP
Café, one of the most successful restaurants in the BID and a popular haunt
for Montefiore Medical Center staffers.
There’s a lot at stake in all these local efforts, and for the city’s
“In order for us to be competitive with rest of the world, we need to be
connected,” Belle says.
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