THE BLOG
01/13/2014 07:10 pm ET Updated Mar 15, 2014

Welcome to the New York City Hunger Games for Broadband

  • Part I: NYC Hunger Games of Broadband
  • Part II: The Wires are Critical for Wireless: An Interview with NYCwireless.

NYC Hunger Games of Broadband

Are you a small business that wants high speed broadband in New York City? You're in luck! There's a competition available to get you just what you need. To compete, you must:

  • Swim across the Hudson River in freezing water, chanting "I want my fiber", holding onto your laptop at all times.
  • Pray to the gods to shine their light so you can beg to get some broadband. Offer them a goat as a sacrifice (Vegans can use turnips).
  • You must show why you really, really, really, need a broadband connection and demonstrate what the "potential impact of fiber on your business and the feasibility of fiber construction to your building".

While the first two requirements are inspired by the movie The Hunger Games, the third one is real. In 2012, Mayor Bloomberg announced the launch of ConnectNYC, a competition to get broadband to small businesses in NYC:

"an innovative City-sponsored competition to encourage growing commercial and industrial businesses in New York City to apply for free fiber cable wiring and to ensure the City continues to establish itself as a leader in connectivity and innovation. The competition - is designed to assist small or medium-sized businesses in unwired or under-wired buildings by providing an opportunity for free, fast-track wiring."

And while the Bloomberg administration helped to make New York City a major tech center for startups and recently started to care about other types of infrastructure, the irony of this contest -- and the situation in general -- is that the focus has not been about the wired infrastructure or delivering high speed Internet access. As an example of that sentiment, Verizon, the incumbent phone company in NYC, and the builder of more miles of fiber than any other service provider, is a no show for this "contest" and a no show for most NYC businesses, especially in commercial areas.

"It's like the elephant in the room in that bandwidth here [in NYC] sucks," said David Pakman, a partner at Venrock, a venture capital firm.

There have been a host of articles, reports and events about the lack of high speed Internet service in what is supposedly the second largest tech hub in America:

  • The Commercial Observer covered a panel discussion of experts in 2013 at the Center for Urban Real Estate at Columbia University, and it concluded "Better Infrastructure Needed to Advance NYC Tech, Building the Digital City".
  • The Village Voice in 2012 was blunt: "New York's Broadband Sucks. Is Anything Being Done to Fix It?"

The Center for Urban Future's report titled New Tech City outlined the resurgence of the tech community in New York and lack of adequate high-speed Internet:

"What is surprising is that New York -- the world's media capital -- could be behind the curve in having the bandwidth that the city's tech companies need. Unfortunately, that appears to be the case. Over the course of our interviews for this study, the state of broadband connectivity in the city came up as the second most frequently cited threat to New York's future growth in the tech sector."

And there are stories aplenty:

"Chris Dixon, the co-founder of start-up Hunch, the recommendation engine which was purchased by eBay in November 2011, recently blogged about the problems getting broadband at his company's office, which is centrally located on 21st Street in the Flatiron district. 'Amazingly, one of our biggest challenges being a NYC start-up has been getting reliable Internet access,' Dixon wrote in December 2011. 'It's embarrassing how bad Internet access in Manhattan is.'"


Why is it this way?

The answer is clear: Most of the blame belongs to Verizon -- the incumbent phone utility that controls the physical wires throughout all of NYC for over 100 years. They were supposed to upgrade the entire network (in NY and in other states) to fiber optics, replacing the aging copper years ago but never did (more on this in a future article).

The new mayor and former Public Advocate Bill de Blasio has been highly critical of Verizon's overall handling of the franchise. He wrote:

"Five years into one of the biggest franchise agreements issued by the city, roughly half of homes still have no access to fiber network connections -- most of them concentrated in low-income areas like Upper Manhattan, the South Bronx, Western Queens and Central Brooklyn."

"Under Verizon's 2008 franchise agreement, all New York City residents are supposed to have access to fiber optic networks by June 2014. As a benchmark, the contract required the company to reach more than three-quarters of City residents by the end of 2012, but according to data released through the New York State Office of Information Technology Services, only half of New York City's 3.4 million housing units had access to fiber broadband services at year's end -- putting the company far behind schedule. Brooklyn and the Bronx lagged furthest behind, with only 40 percent and 46 percent of household having access to fiber, respectively."

The big question is whether the new mayor will be aggressive in the upcoming months to bring broadband to both residential as well as business customers. And this may require some heaving lifting as the current franchise for Verizon FiOS TV has a serious flaw -- it does not require Verizon to wire commercial-only areas of New York City.

Part II: An Interview with NYCwireless: The Wires are Critical for Wireless.

Many reading this will ask: Do we really need wireline broadband anyway? Isn't everything going wireless?

I decided to speak to an expert about wireless in New York City. Dana Spiegel is the Executive Director of NYCwireless, a non-profit that over the past 12 years has created most of the free Wi-Fi networks available in city parks, public spaces, and affordable housing residences.

BK: Why do Wi-Fi hotspots depend on 'wireline' Internet access?

DS: Only the last few hundred feet of a wireless connection is 'wireless.' Any hotspot or even cell tower has to have a connection to a wired network in order to provide the necessary bandwidth for those using the wireless network. The biggest issue for the Wi-Fi networks we build is trying to get a sufficient wired connection. In many buildings, it either doesn't exist or is unreasonably expensive. We're in the same boat as NYC small businesses and tech startups that need connectivity.

BK: What are the options available for wireline?

DS: Believe it or not, in NYC it is different for every building. You simply can't just go into a building expecting the infrastructure is there to have fast Internet access delivered at an affordable rate.

There are usually a few options: DSL lines travel over aging copper wiring, plus they're never actually fast enough (they max out at 10-15Mbps download only, and have an anemic 1Mbps upload speed), plus they're not always available because of the limited availability of copper lines in some buildings.

Most commercial buildings do not have business cable broadband service (provided by Time Warner Cable). When it is available, this service can have technical issues (with latency and uptime) and is also highly asymmetrical (50Mbps down and at most 5Mbps upload speed), which is bad for business use. Even fewer commercial-only buildings have Verizon FiOS.

The other options are either a commercial fiber line or metro-Ethernet (or Ethernet-over-copper), but these options, when they're available, are significantly more expensive to everything else. Metro Ethernet is a service where an independent ISP uses a bundle of copper pairs (think phone lines) and aggregates their capacity together. This solution can provide a symmetrical 20Mbps or even 50Mbps high-speed connection (where uploading and downloading is the same speed). But the big issue is whether there are enough (Verizon maintained) copper lines available in the building and if they are in good enough shape. If not, don't expect to be able to get Verizon to do anything about it.

WiMax (a wireless service) is also available in some neighborhoods but requires a direct line of sight to the transmitter, (no buildings in the way). And it gets tricky because often times that requires access to put equipment on a building rooftop, which can be a tough negotiation in NYC.

BK:
Do you believe wireless can be a good substitute for a company's primary Internet connection instead of something wireline?

DS: Absolutely not. This is what Verizon, AT&T, and others want you to believe, but it is a ridiculous notion. NYCwireless has long said that NYC is different than other cities both in terms of the density and the height of buildings, both of which present a challenge for Wi-Fi and WiMax networks.

All but the most recently built buildings are made of extremely dense material: brick, concrete, and marble. And most buildings, except for some residential areas in the outer boroughs of NYC, are tall: 5-10 stories usually. Any externally placed wireless network that might be deployed has little hope of covering both the higher floors or the offices that are on the inside of the building. And while we may invent a wireless technology in the coming decades that solves both of these issues, one doesn't exist today nor in the foreseeable future.

BK: So what is the solution for today?

DS: While network technology rapidly advances, the truth is we've had a solution for decades: fiber networks. They have been, are, and will be for a long time to come the only solution that can hope to provide the distribution, bandwidth, and low latency necessary for today's and tomorrow's high-speed Internet access. Plus they are lower maintenance than copper, and have orders of magnitude more headroom to growth in terms of raw speed and capacity.

What the City's administration should be doing is ensuring that every single office, store, and restaurant in New York City have access to a fiber line, along with the ability to buy connectivity from at least a few different ISPs.

This would also make both Wi-Fi and other wireless networks more prevalent and much easier to build city-wide, which is good for residents, businesses, and people working for the city government.

BK: One last question. What do you think of the recent announcement of the large Wi-Fi initiative in Harlem?

DS: We always applaud these types of Wi-Fi initiatives. This one was made possible by a $2 million dollar donation by the Fuhrman Foundation and is not meant to be a business-grade solution nor a solution for much of home Internet access (for reasons of density and building height). While it's not clear what happens when the grant runs out, more free Wi-Fi anywhere in the city is definitely a win for local residents.