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NYC Co-op Told To Pull Free Service From Affordable Housing After City’s Reversal On Open Access Fiber
Last November we noted how New York City had scrapped its longstanding plan to build a promising open access fiber network. Not only did that stark reversal leave many partner ISPs high and dry after years of planning, some local community-run ISPs now say the city is forcing them to remove existing free service to affordable housing developments.
People’s Choice Communications, a small NYC cooperative cobbled together by striking Charter Communications workers, was one of several ISPs left in a lurch by the sudden reversal by the Adams administration.
Adding insult to injury, the ISP is now being told by the city to pull existing service provided for free to marginalized communities in The Bronx.
New York City’s original master plan was poised to be a game changer when it was first introduced back in 2020. The plan not only included a pilot program designed to bring affordable broadband to 450,000 residents of New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) buildings, but a plan to spend $156 million on a pilot open access fiber network.
The proposal was to showcase the real-world benefits of the open access model, which data suggests results in significantly lower costs and higher quality service thanks to increased competition. If successful, the city would have then considered a bigger $2.1 billion plan to deploy such a network citywide, providing a template for major metropolitan areas nationwide.
New Mayor, Old Playbook
With the election of a new mayor, everything changed.
In June of 2022, incoming New York City Mayor Eric Adams announced that the city would be “pausing” the entire program for “re-evaluation.” Insiders familiar with the decision making process say the pause was more of an abrupt cancellation, leaving small regional partner ISPs scrambling and out of the loop after several years of careful preparation and planning.
Instead of its original open access plan, the city primarily embraced Big Apple Connect, a plan to pay regional giants Charter Communications (Spectrum) and Optimum (Altice) $90 million dollars in exchange for providing free broadband service to 300,000 New Yorkers living in more than 200 NYCHA developments for three years.
“I actually was listening to the City Council hearing on it when they announced that they were going the direction of Big Apple Connect,” People’s Choice President Troy Walcott told ILSR.
His company has been busy for several years delivering hybrid broadband service to NYC housing developments and schools using a combination of point-to-point wireless and in-building Ethernet. The service, generally priced at around $30 a month, is free once Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) benefits are applied.
Walcott stated that previous conversations with NYC Office of Technology and Innovation (OTI) and NYCHA led him to believe that the city would work collaboratively with People’s Choice.
“They said they liked the plan, we showed it to them, and we showed them how the way that we were doing it would be at $0 to the city,” he said. “And we provide a service that will be permanent.”
Instead, not only was Walcott informed that the city would be partnering exclusively with regional giants on a three year plan that would provide temporary relief, but People’s Choice would need to remove their existing free broadband deployments.
“They said that based on discussion with OTI, that they were going to go in a different direction, and go with Big Apple Connect, and we need to come and remove our equipment in Melrose Houses currently providing free internet to people,” Walcott said.
People’s Choice currently provides the free service to around 430 accounts, many of which are shared between the complex’s 1200 units. It’s a passion project by participants in what was the longest strike in U.S. history, and the company’s employees, mostly former Charter technicians.
From Investing in Public Infrastructure to Subsidizing Private Monopolies
As ILSR has previously noted, the city’s shift has faced no shortage of critics, who say the $90 million being given to local monopolies to provide temporary relief for a problem they helped create (through sustained attacks on competition) is counterproductive.
The city’s open access plan, in contrast, would have introduced meaningful, permanent competition for slightly more money. Big Apple Connect is also seen as an unnecessary and redundant city expenditure given the fact that the ACP already provides low-income Americans with discounted service courtesy of the recently-passed infrastructure bill at no cost to the city.
In a comment to the Gothamist, a NYC City Hall representative claimed its decision to force People’s Choice to sever existing housing development service was due to a “legal dispute between existing Internet service providers.”
“That is BS,” Walcott said. “Block Power People’s Choice Communications and Metro IS had a dispute over a joint business venture we were trying to do. But that was resolved to the mutual satisfaction of all parties” and had nothing to do with the Melrose House deployments, he said.
Neither NYSHA nor OTI responded to a request for comment.
For Walcott and other People’s Choice employees, the selection of Charter as the city’s primary partner added insult to injury. The former Charter technicians’ strike was the longest in U.S. history, and Charter was so intractable in meeting their demands for better wages and improved health care that even their own union ultimately abandoned the fight last May.
“To even hear that they're getting anything is, is really, really ridiculous,” Walcott said. “The city has to basically beg the major cable companies to come down to a price low enough that they can now pay them to fix the problem that they caused. And not even permanently fix it.”
Worse, by removing existing free service from existing housing developments, the city is effectively protecting the very monopolies that helped create the digital divide in the first place.
“If they can do things like they’re doing now, like having us remove a system that's working, they'll immediately raise back up the prices without anybody to stop them,” Walcott said.
He also noted that local ISPs like Optimum are already exploiting the city’s decision to spread false claims that the cooperative is going out of business.
“Optimum's knocking on residents’ doors and saying People's Choice is going out of business, so you have to switch over to Big Apple Connect now so you don't lose it,” he said.
Activist groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) were quick to criticize the city’s apparent fealty to regional monopolies, and their inexplicable decision to remove existing service.
“Let's be crystal clear: Going from a plan to invest millions into building public infrastructure to a plan to subsidize cable companies is a gigantic waste,” the organization wrote. “Building multi-generational public infrastructure that can eventually deliver free access is the only means of achieving long-term sustainable support.”
Walcott says People’s Choice is still examining its options, attempting to get answers from OTI, and working to address the concerns of frustrated development residents. The ISP has launched this petition in a bid to gain public attention and support.
Header of Charter Spectrum workers on strike courtesy of LaborUnionNews.com, no copyright infringement intended
Inline image of NYC Mayor Eric Adams courtesy of Picryl, Public Domain Mark 1.0
Inline image of person signing petition courtesy of Flickr user Garry Knight, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)