In July, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city would “accelerate” its plan to roll out “affordable” high-speed internet access for people in public housing and low-income areas hit hard by the pandemic. 

He cited the city’s long struggle to bridge the digital divide and argued there was more need than ever for connectivity when so many people have turned to the internet as a lifeline for everything from work to schooling to getting basic necessities. Some 1.5 million New Yorkers lack home broadband access, de Blaiso noted.

“This is something we have to go at head-on,” the mayor told reporters during his daily briefing on July 7. “It’s another ‘Tale of Two Cities’ and it has been for a long time.” 

To fund that element of the city’s broader Master Plan, de Blasio set aside $157 million in the budget — including $87 million “redirected from the NYPD budget,” he said. 

At the time, a press release from the mayor’s office said the city expected to “announce partnerships at the end of the summer 2020” with a full “deployment of the program occurring throughout 2020 and 2021.”  

Nearly six months later, the city says it has not yet reached a single deal for the NYCHA project or spent any of the money set aside for the broadband plan — an initiative de Blasio has been talking about since he ran for mayor in 2013. 

City officials say they are now “in negotiations with finalists … who have proposed new internet service options” with below-market rates for NYCHA developments, according to mayoral spokesperson Laura Feyer. 

The city also plans to issue a broader solicitation in February seeking firms for the affordable internet service and broadband infrastructure plan, she added. 

“The work being done now and over the next year will make broadband affordable for hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers and will set the stage for continued progress in the years that follow,” Feyer said.

‘A Lack of Urgency’

As early as five months into his mayoralty, de Blasio promised a “bold” approach on bridging the broadband gap. “We simply haven’t done well enough in this city,” he said in May 2014

A year later, he announced  the city would set aside $70 million in the capital budget toward making it happen. 

Those funds were never spent and rolled into the $157 million program announced this summer, according to Feyer, who described the initiative as “the largest municipal investment in the U.S. aimed at closing the digital divide.” 

Maya Wiley announces the start of her mayoral campaign outside the Brooklyn Museum, Oct. 8, 2020. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Maya Wiley, who served as de Blasio’s counsel, was the initial point person on the project. 

“Broadband is no longer a luxury — it’s as central to education, jobs, businesses and our civic life as water and electricity,” she said in 2015.  

Wiley, who is running for mayor, said last week that it’s “disappointing” that the program remains a work in progress. “It’s continuously been delayed due to a lack of urgency, vision and attention,” she told THE CITY in a statement.  

John Paul Farmer, the city’s chief technology officer since April 2019, is currently overseeing the latest effort to expand broadband.

Farmer’s office is now seeking to hire for three top posts, including a director of digital inclusion and partnerships, director of data and director of broadband technology.

Meanwhile, some New Yorkers without Wi-Fi at home or with limited service on their phones hang out in front of the city’s 207 library branches for free access at all hours, THE CITY reported in September. The city’s three library systems also lend a few hundred hotspot devices to patrons, including parents of school-age children. 

The city is also scrambling to install Wi-Fi at its 200 family homeless shelters after the Daily News highlighted how children at those locations were struggling to access their online classes. 

‘Progressivism Without Progress’

As for the broadband plan, one tech expert blames the repeated delays on the city’s antiquated contracting process and on a lack of focus and attention by the de Blasio administration. 

“Many of the the failures of the digital divide as we’re seeing them in the last two years of the de Blasio administration is really just follow through and follow up and having a dedicated individual to really push the the bureaucratic or policy issue through the myriad of issues,” said Noel Hidalgo, executive director of the technology focused nonprofit BetaNYC. 

The city’s contracting process is “still structured in a 20th century framework” that fails to focus on solution-based frameworks, according to Hidalgo. 

“The way that the city buys technology is the same way that it buys dump trucks, and sanitation vehicles and police cars,” he said, arguing the city should use more flexible and comprehensive “service design” contracts. 

In Washington, people can access Wi-Fi at police stations and firehouses, he added, noting New York City has never created a similar setup. 

New York isn’t the only city scrambling to offer affordable broadband in low-income areas amid the coronavirus crisis. Officials in San Antonio and Cleveland launched similar initiatives this summer.

Feyer said the city has “separated out urgent needs” during the pandemic, like helping students stay connected for remote learning and by providing 10,000 internet-connected devices to older NYCHA residents. 

Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-The Bronx) Credit: Jeff Reed/New York City Council

In November, de Blasio announced a deal with Verizon to give all of NYCHA access to high-speed Fios service. The tech firm agreed to upgrade the infrastructure in those areas because it previously failed “to meet the terms of its cable franchise agreement, inked under the Bloomberg administration, to build out its FiOS network,” according to the city. 

The agreement addresses the lack of broadband infrastructure in those areas but will require tenants to pay market rate for the service, records show. 

Meanwhile, most public housing residents, aside from those living in the Queensbridge Houses,  have no affordable Wi-Fi options, said Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-The Bronx). 

“The story of the de Blasio administration is the story of progressivism without progress,” said Torres, who until recently served as a City Council member. “The failure to bring broadband to NYCHA is the latest example of something we’ve long known about the mayor and his administration. The incompetence of city government is failing all of us, but most especially poor people of color.”