Additional reporting by With additional reporting by Gabriel Sandoval
When Maya Wiley went to work as Mayor Bill de Blasio’s legal counsel shortly after he took office in 2014, he asked her to figure out how to bridge the digital divide by bringing broadband to low-income neighborhoods.
“I thought, ‘Oh, s—t!’ I said we needed it. I didn’t know how to get it,” Wiley recalled on the Technopolis podcast posted in June 2019.
The civil rights attorney had captured de Blasio’s attention after she wrote a piece in The Nation urging him to “build more community broadband” in an effort to forge “stronger, fairer and more resilient communities.”
But nearly eight years later, during a pandemic that has moved much of work and school online, the de Blasio administration is still struggling to make that a reality. City officials say they are now “actively reviewing proposals” from firms that responded to a highly anticipated request for proposals the mayor’s office issued in March. The city has set aside $157 million for the first portion of its ballyhooed Internet Master Plan.
Meanwhile, some 1.5 million New Yorkers, including many living in public housing, lack broadband access or mobile internet connection, according to city estimates.
“We’ve been let down too long,” said Danny Barber, chairperson of Citywide Council of Presidents, NYCHA’s tenant leadership panel.
“There are thousands of homes where kids are failing or have failed thus far with schooling due to lack of accessibility,” added Barber, who has endorsed Ray McGuire.
Now Wiley is running for her old boss’ job, looking to both distance herself from him and tout herself as the candidate primed to deliver on the progressive promises of a mayor who critics say failed on his pledge to rewrite “a tale of two cities.”
Her record as de Blasio’s counsel during his ethics flaps and as his appointee to head the Civilian Complaint Review Board have drawn far more attention than her role as the would-be bridger of the digital divide.
Wiley has long blamed de Blasio and her multiple predecessors for failing to deliver WiFi for the masses. “It’s continuously been delayed due to a lack of urgency, vision and attention,” she told THE CITY in a statement in January.
An examination of Wiley’s role in the LinkNYC kiosk deal that aimed to connect many New Yorkers reveals a more complex accounting of why legions have been left in the digital dust.
COVID Underscored Failures
The lack of broadband connectivity was highlighted by the pandemic when low-income New Yorkers struggled to get online to do everything from attend school classes to schedule telehealth medical appointments to work remotely.
Some were even seen sitting outside the 207 closed libraries that continued to boost free Wi-Fi outside.
“The political capital behind the idea that we needed to get broadband networks everywhere, and get everyone on them, increased dramatically in March of 2020,” said Blair Levin, who handled broadband expansion at the Federal Communications Commission during the Obama administration.
“COVID demonstrated painfully to people like me how important it was to make sure that there were networks everywhere and everyone was on them,” he added.
Wiley prides herself for launching free internet access to residents at the NYCHA Queensbridge Houses, the largest public housing complex in the nation with more than 6,000 people, many of whom are Black and Hispanic.
In her digital role for the de Blasio administration, she also “helped negotiate and supported the launch of the LinkNYC franchise,” according to the bio at The New School, where she teaches.
The plan was to convert landline pay phone locations into sleek kiosks with Wi-Fi hotspots, phone capabilities and a tablet touchscreen that could connect users to city services, such as the information and complaint hotline 311. The kiosks would be paid for by revenue from advertisements while bringing in $500 million for the city over the span of the agreement, which was initially 12 years.
In 2014, a consortium of private companies called CityBridge signed a franchise agreement under which it promised to install 7,500 operational kiosks within a decade. Two years later, Wiley celebrated the arrival of the first kiosks with a tweet declaring de Blasio the “best boss.”
The original deal included an initial 500 kiosks that wouldn’t have offered advertising, but would have provided some internet service for digital deserts. The number of those kiosks would have eventually expanded to 1,500.
“A targeted phase-in schedule provides for an equitable distribution of the new structures across the five boroughs within four years,” de Blasio’s office trumpeted at the time.
But that part of the deal was pulled because, City Hall later said, those kiosks were incompatible with the LinkNYC system.
As of now, CityBridge has installed just 1,824 kiosks — and hasn’t put a new one up since 2018, records show.
And instead of bridging the digital divide, the company actually exacerbated it, critics say, by locating the majority of the devices in high-density areas like Manhattan to generate more advertising revenue.
“Market forces would drive the deployment where there’s density and wealth,” said Levin, who is currently a fellow at the Brookings Institution.
“The question is can policies effectively drive it everywhere at the same time? Yes, for sure.”
But that includes forcing providers to expand to areas that would not be as lucrative, he added.
‘Wildly Unrealistic Assumptions’
The LinkNYC plan, a deal negotiated by Wiley, was based on “wildly unrealistic assumptions about how much advertising revenue” the devices would generate, said Jessica Tisch, commissioner of the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, which oversees LinkNYC. She made her statement as part of her testimony in a City Council budget hearing on May 20.
Tisch noted the kiosks were supposed to generate more than $3 billion in revenue over the life of the program but have just brought in about 10% of that so far.
Last month, Tisch announced a plan to revitalize the much-maligned kiosks. The new deal calls for cutting the revenue-sharing payments to the city in return for the addition of at least 2,000 kiosks with 5G service outside of Lower Manhattan and Midtown, according to Crain’s New York Business, which first reported the deal.
In addition to adding kiosks outside of Lower Manhattan and Midtown over the next three years, LinkNYC would pay back $60 million it owes the city from prior years.
The new kiosks would be newly enabled with 5G cellular equipment, along with Wi-Fi and USB charging. The hope is that leasing space to other telecom firms for 5G equipment will create an additional revenue stream to make the kiosks financially viable.
Defenders of Wiley point out the LinkNYC program had its origins in the Bloomberg administration, which sought ideas to upgrade old payphone sites.
“Somebody needed to grab the reins of this massive beast that was going through many different transitions,” said Noel Hidalgo, executive director of the technology focused nonprofit BetaNYC.
Overall, Hidalgo said Wiley did a good job under difficult circumstances.
“I think her heart is in the right place,” he said. “I think she intrinsically understands these issues.”
But she either found “chaos or confusion” when trying to make changes, he added, blaming what he called de Blasio’s lack of leadership.
“Never forget, this is the mayor who very proudly said he uses a flip phone,” he said.
Trump Blamed for Delay
Wiley’s defenders say she left the groundwork in place before taking the head job at the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board in July 2016. They contend the broadband project was doomed by constant turmoil, including a subsequent lack of support from the Trump administration.
The federal Lifeline low-cost service program was expanded by the Obama administration to include broadband to anyone in HUD-assisted housing. Under Trump, the FCC stopped the Lifeline reform effort, hindering the city’s ability to expand affordable broadband for NYCHA residents.
The Trump-era FCC also greatly restricted the city’s authority on big cable and telecom companies, including how they could use public streets and light poles.
“It totally tilted the field against cities doing anything innovative by increasing competition,” said Josh Breitbart, the city’s senior advisor for broadband from March 2015 to January 2017.
Breitbart, who was hired by Wiley, called her a “fantastic boss.”
“She left a clear path forward on broadband, essentially what led to the city’s highly praised plan,” he added.
Slow to Launch
It’s taken years, though, for the plan to take off.
When Wiley left in July 2016, the broadband plan was moved to the city’s chief technology officer, Minerva Tantoco. Miguel Gamiño took over but left for a job in Texas in March 2018.
John Paul Farmer, the city’s current chief technology officer, is now overseeing the latest effort to expand broadband.
Wiley’s plan laid the groundwork for the current model in place, her supporters say.
The vision calls for a focus on public housing and city-owned property to invest in infrastructure to address inequity from past digital redlining. The goal is to spur more creative options and for local companies to compete to bring the cost down.
But Wiley’s campaign website doesn’t detail any specific broadband plan that she’d pursue if elected.
On the 2019 podcast, she noted that multiple municipalities throughout the country are creating their own broadband, adding, “I’m all in favor.”
She cited the Detroit equitable internet initiative as an example of a “community scale project.” That effort involves community organizers putting together gigabyte service that residents are paid to install and maintain.
“The thing I want us to pay attention to is we often think, ‘If it’s municipal, it solves all our problems.’ And it does not,” Wiley said. “We shouldn’t confuse public with affordable.”
“We have to give cities and towns and villages the ability to experiment,” she added. “It’s finding the secret sauce for different places and allowing innovation to happen just like the private sector.”
Julia Savel, a spokesperson for Wiley’s campaign, declined multiple opportunities to comment before this story was posted.
The Wiley campaign sent this statement Monday morning, hours after publication:
“The bottom line is that the biggest and most significant steps the city has taken to date on affordable high-speed broadband are those that Maya led five years ago or set in motion. If anything, this says that, as mayor, Maya will not let anyone get in her way to get this done, reflected in her investment of $2 billion in the city’s digital and physical infrastructure spending, as part of New Deal New York.”