Vol. 20,  No. 8 April 19 - May 2, 2007


Hearing Airs Details of Borough’s Digital Divide
City Gathers Info to Bring High-Speed Internet to the Masses


Affordable, 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 economic strata.

“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 competitive academically.

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 that effort.

“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 parks.

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 said.

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 recreational hub.

“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 as-yet-undetermined role.

“In order for us to be competitive with rest of the world, we need to be connected,” Belle says.

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