As ACP Collapses, Newark Takes The Lead On Affordable Access

Downtown Newark NJ

Newark, New Jersey is taking full advantage of its city-owned fiber network to expand affordable broadband access – with a particular eye on helping the city’s least fortunate.

Driven by past successes with city-owned fiber and Wi-Fi, Newark has announced the city is significantly expanding the availability of $20/month broadband service to numerous Newark Housing Authority (NHA) apartment buildings.

Newark Housing Authority logo

This latest partnership with Adrena leans heavily on Newark Fiber, a 288-strand city-owned fiber network. Launched in 2016, the network has steadily been expanded to connect anchor institutions. But it’s also been a cornerstone of the city’s efforts to revitalize and assist many lower income – and long neglected – Newark neighborhoods.

“Nine percent of Newark families lack computers and about 20 percent of the city doesn't have an in-home broadband connection,” Aaron Meyerson, Chief Innovation Economy Officer & Director of Broadband for the City of Newark told ILSR.

Most low-income Newark families access the Internet through costly cell phone plans – the only access many rely on. With high poverty rates and the FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) coming to an end thanks to Congressional dysfunction (70 percent of Newark residents qualified and 50 percent subscribed), the city’s network expansion comes at an opportune time.

Chadwick Ave Housing in Newark

The ACP provided low-income Americans with a $30 discount off of their monthly broadband bill. Combined with Adrena’s already low rates, many low-income Newark residents were effectively getting broadband for free. But Congressional Republicans balked at continued funding for the program, forcing many states and cities to tackle (or not) the issue themselves.

Adrena officials told ILSR this latest expansion cost $545,000 to deliver access to 1,735 units across 14 buildings, or around $315 per unit. Connected users will see extremely affordable price points: either symmetrical 100 Mbps for $20 a month, or symmetrical 200 Mbps service for $30 a month. Over 150 units have already signed up for service.

“We knew that we really wanted to connect more residents, but given we're a public private partnership and a municipal operation, we don't have a ton of resources to do it ourselves,” Meyerson said.

A Piecemeal Approach

Newark officials say they’d previously explored the idea of building a city wide fiber network, but found the upfront cost – estimated to be anywhere from $30 to $100 million (depending on the scale, last mile scope, and open access conditions) – to be a political and financial challenge.

“Given the city has some current providers and Newark Fiber is already there, it requires a fair amount of political will to try and raise that type of funds,” Meyerson noted.

Newark Fiber logo

So the city has taken a more steady, piecemeal approach as resources allow. In 2018 the city launched citywide free Wi-Fi. And over time has expanded Newark Fiber – bringing broadband access of speeds up to 10 gigabit per second (Gbps) to more than 75 city buildings.

In March of 2023 the city issued a request for collaboration looking for additional partners. Shortly thereafter the city selected Adrenna, Newark-based TeknoGRID, and Brooklyn-based BlocPower to not only help build out the last mile – but to train marginalized and disadvantaged locals to do fiber and Wi-Fi installations.

“Given it's a managed Wi Fi network, nobody needs to go into your unit,” Meyerson noted. “It's installed in the hallway right outside your door, kind of like a hotel type system. All you need to do is give them a call or go online to sign up. They give you a code, you log in, and you're online. So the barrier to entry for residents to get online is also really low, which is great.”

Muted Competition, Monopoly Power, And Unreliable FCC Maps

Like countless U.S. communities, Newark suffers from a notable lack of real broadband competition. Modern broadband access is primarily dominated by cable giant Altice Optimum (formerly Cablevision), though Verizon DSL also peppers the city. The lack of competition results in spotty access, high prices, slow speeds, and terrible customer service.

Janice Cromer Village in Newark

“It's very expensive to build out; particularly to large MDUs (multi-dwelling units) or areas like Newark that have a lot of medium density buildings,” Meyerson said. “So very rarely do we see two providers in any building; we usually just see one. So part of this work is competing directly as Newark Fiber, and we do it in places where it makes sense for us to do so.”

Newark is also no stranger to digital discrimination caused by regional monopolies that prioritize wealthier, whiter communities over their more diverse, lower-income counterparts. Data journalism routinely reveals that big ISPs not only bypass communities of color, they often charge those same neighborhoods more money for lower quality broadband.

Last year, a study by Newark-based nonprofits Project Ready and Newark Trust for Education found that a zip code’s household poverty rate and its median household income were the strongest predictors of average download speeds.

While the federal government and FCC recently formally acknowledged the digital discrimination problem for the first time in federal broadband policy history, efforts to actually fix it remain scattershot. Enter cities like Newark, which are taking matters into its own hands and making affordability – a central obstacle to broadband adoption – integral to its mission.

“The South is one of the least invested-in areas of the city, historically, from a broadband connectivity standpoint, and it has a higher poverty rate than the rest of the city,” Meyerson said. “So we are really trying to focus there. Our goal is to get people to sign up, and to encourage the competitive Internet service providers in the building to lower their rates and increase their speed if possible as well.”

Newark NJ neighborhood

Officials say Newark’s attempts to bridge the digital divide have often run face-first into federal mapping data that simply isn’t reliable despite the FCC having spent more than $450 million to try and map U.S. broadband to date.

“In thinking about Newark fiber expansion and trying to reach the mayor's goal of getting everybody connected we did a fair amount of  analysis,” Meyerson said. “We did speed test surveys in the city where we got 2500 different addresses. We did all sorts of various studies looking at the FCC maps in different ways to try and understand where the city thinks it's unconnected and under connected versus what the FCC data shows.”

Meyerson said FCC data initially claimed that Newark saw 94 percent broadband coverage, a number that has since jumped to 99 percent despite promised FCC mapping improvements. In reality, Newark officials found that the city was closer to 50 percent served with broadband and 19 percent completely unserved.

Doing The Heavy Lifting, Looking To The Future

Newark officials say the city continues to explore every option to expand access, whether that means pushing Wi-Fi into additional city parks, finding partners to help expand Newark Fiber block by block, or using the network to support ongoing efforts to aid the homeless, including running fiber to the recently launched Hope Village 2 project.

Rutgers Univ bushes

City leaders say they’re also working closely with Rutgers Newark, which just received a $2.3 million grant courtesy of the NTIA’s Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program to expand broadband access to underserved communities, teach computer literacy skills, and help train Newark residents and Rutgers' students in Newark for careers in tech service.

“They're doing some interesting work with digital literacy and connecting the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated as well,” Meyerson said. “Right now we're keeping an eye on BEAD and digital equity work,” he said. “The city continues to try and find ways to leverage the Newark fiber network.”

One problem: those unreliable FCC maps that continue to overstate broadband availability in the city have boxed Newark out from the $264 million in New Jersey BEAD broadband grants made possible by the 2021 infrastructure bill. Rural and urban communities alike say correcting the FCC’s errors is a costly, time-intensive process many lack the resources for.

“We tried to make our case for more eligibility for those funds, but I don't think we were successful,” Meyerson said. “Towns and municipalities and even states often don't have the expertise and capacity to be doing site by site challenges. We could have challenged harder, but we haven't seen success in the past, so we found it a bit of a fool's errand to keep going.”

In the interim, Newark officials continue to scout the horizon for partnerships and opportunities no matter what they look like, with a central focus on bringing affordable access to communities that have spent the better part of a generation trapped on the wrong side of the digital divide.

Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0 DEED Attribution 2.0 Generic

Inline image of Chadwick Avenue Village in Newark NJ courtesy of Newark Housing Authority website

Inline image of Janice Cromer Village in Newark NJ courtesy of Newark Housing Authority website 

Inline image of Newark neighborhood courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0 DEED Attribution 2.0 Generic

Inline image of Rutgers University courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, CC0 1.0 DEED CC0 1.0 Universal