Last week, Hurricane Sandy hit the world's media capital -- and because of that, it's likely we'll hold focus on longterm infrastructure problems for at least a day or so. What disempowered New Yorkers most wanted during the storm, in addition to safety and electricity, was a way to communicate. My suggestion: Prioritize rebooting communications infrastructure for New York City and its environs at the same time that we think seriously about water barriers and other infrastructural needs.
Our communications problems boil down to two central issues: Lack of capacity and lack of a safety net.
Capacity first. Even before the storm, communications capacity in New York City was hardly at first-world levels. Calls drop because we need connections that can easily handle all the data we throw at them. Just the last bit of a wireless communication is over the air; 95 percent of its journey is over a wire. If you've got dark fiber to every home and business (as in Stockholm), and cell towers covering smaller areas are everywhere they can be, calls don't drop and business transactions run smoother.
Getting fiber everywhere requires lowering the cost of capital for wholesale, independent providers who can loosen Verizon's deathgrip on wires in New York City. Longterm, low-interest loans backed by the good name of the City would make it possible for these providers to service all five boroughs. In turn, these wholesale actors could lease out access to their lines to retail providers that New York residents could choose. Along the way, the city itself could avoid its complete reliance on Verizon, a company that has no particular incentive to expand its services or speed up its recovery efforts. The net result would be lower prices, greater choices, higher capacity and a globally relevant access network for New York.
Then we need a safety net. Many heart-wrenching stories this week illustrate the growing inequality in basic services across the city. The richest New Yorkers lead entirely separate lives from the people who work hourly jobs to provide the services that make New York City spin. Everyone needs to have an equal capacity to communicate, just as everyone needs electricity.
David Sylvester, a Staten Island resident whose house had flooded and burned during the storm, was quoted in the New York Times saying that he was instructed by a Federal Emergency Management Agency employee to go online to make an appointment. The starkness of this ridiculous advice provides a useful teachable moment: People who rely on hourly wages are likely not to have a home Internet connection, even when their basements are dry. (Read: Nov 5 Update on FEMA's response in Staten Island.)
In a time when government services, job applications, educational opportunities and health information have all moved online, it's past time to put longterm, infrastructural policies in place that covers critical communications systems, including Internet access. Big government moves are necessary: making sure prices for Internet access are reasonable, that competitors can share the hardware belonging to incumbents, and that everyone gets the same level of open world-class Internet access.
We did it for electricity. We did it for the telephone. Hurricane Sandy reminds us that we need to do it for Internet access as well.