New York City and State Each Craft Broadband Policies; City Nixes Muni Wi-Fi

August 7 – New York City should not create a comprehensive municipal wireless network, but should instead take targeted actions to increase the public availability of high-speed internet service and encourage broadband adoption, city officials said last week.

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August 7 – New York City should not create a comprehensive municipal wireless network, but should instead take targeted actions to increase the public availability of high-speed internet service and encourage broadband adoption, city officials said last week.

Among those actions include finding ways to get private providers to push fiber-optic wires into more parts of the city, including many industry parks that are currently unserved, officials and a consultant said at City Hall on July 30.

The likely rejection of a municipal wireless network comes at a time when other major cities that had dallied with the concept – including Philadelphia and San Francisco – are having second thoughts about the advisability of city-wide public Wi-Fi.

Instead of seeing wireless as the key driver to bridging the digital divide, the current hot topic in universal broadband is now fiber optics, judging by the New York City report.

“Our way of thinking is even though you are seeing a ton of activity in the wireless world, all of those have at their core a physical infrastructure component – a fiber component,” said city consultant Chris O’Brien, a partner with Diamond Management and Technology Consultants, speaking at City Hall.

“If you look at the future fiber is going to be the thing most in demand, because it is the thing that everything rides on,” said O’Brien. “The city should be looking for ways to encourage fiber deployment.”

Deputy Mayor Robert Lieber said that New York City welcomed Diamond’s report and would likely support its recommendations.

“Using technology and supporting its use among New Yorkers to improve the accessibility and efficiency of government and improve quality of life has been a hallmark of the Bloomberg Administration,” Lieber said in a statement provided by his office. Lieber serves under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and is responsible for economic development.

In addition to pushing fiber into more parts of the city, including industrial parks, the report calls for the city to increase broadband adoption by low-income households, to support competition, and to increase the number of wireless access points in high-density parts of the city, as well as public parks.

Lieber, O’Brien and City Council Member Gale Brewer each spoke at the July 30 briefing, which was following by a meeting of the New York City Broadband Advisory Committee. Established by 2006 legislation authored by Brewer, the advisory committee aims to use the Diamond report as a springboard to crafting detailed broadband policies.

“The city feels very enhusiastic about the suggestions,” said Mike Kelly, an aide to Lieber. “We are looking to craft a comprehensive set of initiatives that will tackle the digital divide issues.”

In addition to New York City, New York State is also in the midst of a comprehensive review of state-wide broadband initatives.

As with the New York City effort, the state approach seeks to ensure that high-speed internet service is available for all.

The New York State Council for Universal Broadband was formed in December 2007 and has begun holding quarterly meetings to develop a state-wide policy on broadband.

“In an age when our competitiveness depends on fast and easy access to information, too many communities in New York State still lack sufficient broadband access,” said Governor Paterson said in March, when the city announced a series of 2007-2008 broadband access grants.

The largest three grants went to New Vision Powerline Communications, Inc. ($1.3 million), to develop a broadband over power line inititiave in Onondaga County; Tech Valley Communications ($938,000), to work with municipal agencies and non-profit groups in Albany County to expand free internet services; and the Mount Hope Housing Co. ($776,000), to offer one year of free broadband access to residents of Bronx County, in New York City.

Although the state-wide effort is still in the midst of developing policy parameters, one group of technical experts and advocates calling themselves the Open Infrastructure Alliance (OIA) welcomed the governor’s plan and called four a four-part platform of their own.

OIA would fund universal broadband deployment by stripping broadband providers of hundreds of millions of dollars in “public interest perks given to incumbent telecom companies viewed as utilities, where now those companies are operating in a competitive market;” by proposing that the state collect its own detailed broadband data; by urging “a comprehensive examination of the successful broadband models to follow and models to avoid,” with a particular eye toward international successes; and by seeking to light up dark fiber currently not in use.

Another group actively following the New York city and state broadband initiatives is the Internet Society of New York. Joly MacFie, secretary of the society, said he felt there was merit to the city’s goal to “set up partnerships with groups that already work in [low-income and underserved] areas, and the technology companies, to look for funding” to drive universal broadband.

O’Brien, speaking at the New York City forum, said he was happy that the city has not gone all out on municipal wireless. He said that two years ago “muni wireless was a really hot topic. The city said, rather than doing what others [were doing], we are going to do a fact-based study and figure out what the coverage issues are like here.”

“Determining the most effective and feasible ways to increase broadband accessibility among New Yorkers is a priority,” Lieber said. “The findings of the consultant study and the ongoing input of the Broadband Advisory Committee will provide valuable insight as we look at what role the public and private sectors should play in promoting broadband accessibility throughout New York City.”

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