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The Future of Digital New York City

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Anyone who has a high-speed connection to the Internet probably has a hard time imagining life without it. Forget surfing the web, many people already use their Internet connection as their primary telephone line through VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) technology. Soon everyone will watch TV through his or her computer. Convergence is happening. The Internet is delivering every type of data - words, sounds, pictures and video. Google is a verb. Wikipedia and other "open source" databases are replacing the Encyclopedia Britannica and other paper reference texts. The IMDB makes every movie and TV buff happy. Virtually all music is easily available, legally and illegally, via the Internet. YouTube and Flickr allow pictures and video to be quickly distributed. And let us not forget that e-mail and text messaging have, for many people, become their primary form of communication (for better or worse).

In a 2005 report entitled A Decade of Adoption: How the Internet has woven itself into American life by the Pew American and Internet Life Project, researchers noted that, by 2004, the Internet had already become an integral part of modern life.

"On a typical day at the end of 2004, some 70 million American adults logged onto the Internet to use email, get news, access government information, check out health and medical information, participate in auctions, book travel reservations, research their genealogy, gamble, seek out romantic partners, and engage in countless other activities."

But not everyone is online yet. According to a 2006 Pew report entitled Internet Penetration and Impact, 27% of American households are still not using the Internet at all.

Another Pew report highlights the new "digital division" between those with broadband and those with dial-up, which mirrors some of the social and economic strata in America.

"Fifty-three percent of Internet users now have a high-speed connection at home, up from 21% of Internet users in 2002. Not surprisingly, the groups who were initially most likely to lag in adopting the Internet now lag in access speeds. Those with less education, those with lower household incomes, and Americans age 65 and older are less likely to have embraced broadband than those who are younger and have higher socio-economic status."

According to a recent MuniWireless.com report, 10% of households with incomes under $30,000 have adopted broadband, while 60% of households with incomes over $100,000 have a broadband connection in the home.

Pew's "Digital Divisions" report even calls those with broadband the "elite."

"One way to look at Internet access in the U.S. is to split adults into three tiers - the truly offline (22% of American adults); those with relatively more modest connections, such as dial-up users, intermittent users, and non-users who live with an Internet user (40%); and the highly-wired broadband elite (33%)."

If having a broadband connection is so important and if those who could use it the most (e.g., those with less education and/or lower incomes and the elderly) are less likely to have broadband, government - the executor of the "public interest" - must step in!

Across the country, local governments are responding to this issue in ways that meet the specific needs of their communities. Philadelphia is partnering with Earthlink to build a Wi-Fi network to conquer the digital divide and promote economic development. Initiatives are underway in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis, Atlanta and Houston. The list of major urban centers getting involved goes on and on. Even smaller cities such as Spokane and Corpus Christi are more wired than New York City! California's famous Silicon Valley and Suffolk and Nassau counties on Long Island in New York are engaged in projects to make huge swaths of land "unwired," while a consortium of cities in Utah is bringing fiber-optics into every home with speeds matching those in East Asia - the most wired region in the world. Governor Schwarzenegger of California has convened a statewide broadband task force and Governor Spitzer of New York committed to universal, affordable access to broadband in his inaugural State of the State address.

To date, New York City - the biggest and arguably the most economically powerful city in the United States - has not yet taken action on this issue.

Two years ago, Council Member Gale A. Brewer of Manhattan introduced legislation to create a citywide Broadband Advisory Committee to create a public conversation on the digital future of New York City. (Note: I am Council Member Brewer's Chief of Staff.) With the support of Mayor Bloomberg, Local Law 126 was signed into law in December 2005 creating the New York City Broadband Advisory Committee.

New York City is neither Philadelphia nor San Francisco. New York is the most populous city in the United States with unparalleled diversity. One size does not fit all here. The Broadband Advisory Committee was created to hold public town hall-style hearings that will allow New Yorkers to voice their opinions on this important issue so that those in policymaking positions will truly understand the unique needs of the many communities within our city. In late May, the second public hearing of the New York City Broadband Advisory Committee will be convened in downtown Brooklyn at Brooklyn Borough Hall. For updated information regarding the Brooklyn public hearing, go to the unofficial website of the New York City Broadband Advisory Committee. The website has a list of Committee Members (along with their bios) as well as materials, video (on YouTube), audio (in podcast format) and testimony from the Bronx hearing held on March 30th, 2007.

The United States has fallen to 12th in the world in terms of broadband connected households per capita - lower even than Iceland. Plus, connection speeds in East Asia and Western Europe are several times faster than the average speeds in the US at half the price. We applaud the ambition of the telephone companies to bring fiber optics into the home, but consumers need more options than those provided by the cable and telephone companies. Where are the wireless companies? Many of them are partnering with local government.

Broadband adoption is just the first step. What matters is what people - children and families - do with their access.

Council Member Brewer and I undertook this project not because of a desire to promote technology in a vacuum but rather to provide access that improve the lives of real people seeking better opportunities for themselves and their families. How does someone find a job these days? Increasingly online, much to the chagrin of newspapers and to the delight of Craigslist fans.

We care about the 1.1 million public school children in New York City. Shouldn't they too, like their suburban and private school counterparts, have access to information on the Web outside of school?

In a June 6, 2006 editorial in the New York Times, the editors endorsed a governmental role in bridging the digital divide:

"The city ... also has to get serious about wider access. The minimal goal ... should be free or low-cost access in its densely populated, poor neighborhoods in all the boroughs. That is where cable and phone line options are out of financial reach, and where education especially suffers as a result."

Is it a "flat" world? Who knows - but everyone should have the chance to find out.