Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 254

This is the transcript for episode 254 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Christopher Mitchell sits down with Joshua Breitbart, the Senior Advisor for Broadband to the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of New York City. Listen to this episode here.

Joshua Breitbart: From New York City, I think that we are maybe the first city to begin to look at how we can take responsibility for the space of the Internet itself.

Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 254 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. Finding ways for lower income individuals and families to obtain high quality Internet access is a problem in most urban areas. As Internet access becomes more central to our lives for everyday tasks, solving that problem becomes more immediate. In New York City the Queensbridge Connected project is aiming to solve that problem by working with a private sector partner and involving the community. This initiative will bring high-speed Wi-Fi to residents of Queensbridge Housing, which is part of the New York City Public Housing Authority. In this interview, Christopher talks with Joshua Breitbart who works for New York City. Joshua describes how the project has progressed, how they view the Queensbridge Connected project as a model of other parts of the city, and shares some of the lessons learned that have helped guide the project. Now here's Christopher and Joshua Breitbart talking about New York City's Queensbridge Connected initiative.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell, still in my hotel room, talking with another person from the Broadband Community Summit down here in Dallas, 2017. Welcome to the show, Joshua Breitbart. Senior advisor for Broadband to the CTO of New York City.

Joshua Breitbart: Hello, Chris. Good to be here.

Christopher Mitchell: I'm excited to have you on the show. I've talked with you a few times. You've been doing a lot of interesting stuff. I know you've been doing interesting stuff for many years but you've gone from somebody who was doing interesting policy, in the ground grassroots working with neighborhood groups, to working for the most powerful, most amazing city in the world, so I'm interested to see what's going on. Maybe we can start, why are you down here in Dallas for the Broadband Summit?

Joshua Breitbart: Queensbridge Connected, which is our initiative in New York to connect all the residents of the Queensbridge houses to high-speed broadband has won an award for Most Promising New Plan from Next Century Cities and Google Fiber. We're very excited to come here and receive the award and learn from a lot of the other attendees here.

Christopher Mitchell: Queensbridge Connected. Before we even start there, there's something that you said a long time ago that stuck with me and that's -- For people to get a sense, New York I think maybe they think of Manhattan. You said something along the lines of, "You have to understand that if you take one problem, that you face one sub-sector like low-income housing, that in aggregate is more people than most cities are in size."

Joshua Breitbart: The New York City Housing Authority is the largest housing authority in the country. There are approximately 400 thousand residents which would put it on its own I think in the top 50 cities in the country. They live at about 328 different sites, 26 hundred buildings, 180 thousand or so apartment units. It's about one in 12 New York residents live in public housing so it's an important part of our city. It's important part of keeping New York affordable. The New York City Housing Authority, NYCHA, the residents, they are an important part of New York. There are communities like the Queensbridge houses, which in itself is the largest public housing development in the country with about seven thousand residents, that are almost a neighborhood unto themselves. This was a great opportunity to work with those residents to establish a real center of excellence for the city where we could start to put into practice the Universally Connected New York that the mayor has set as a goal for 2025.

Christopher Mitchell: I wanted to know, you have these challenges, you also have a unique challenge in that a lot of communities that come to me and they say, "We're trying to solve this problem," and I think, "You're similar to someone else." New York City's not similar to anyone else.

Joshua Breitbart: Or in some ways we're similar to everyone else. There might be one section of New York that is like a whole other city of 500 thousand people and that 15, 16, 17 times throughout the city. But we also have great people as part of the city. It's a real privilege to have the colleagues that I have. Other cities can't necessarily bring together the same group of people. We have a fantastic -- Mayor's really committed to this issue, and again the residents are great contributors and partners. I'm a New Yorker. It's where I grew up. It's a real great opportunity to contribute to my hometown. I love going to work everyday trying to solve these problems.

Christopher Mitchell: As we start talking about Queensbridge Connected I want to know one other thing and that's that you had worked previously with Maya Wiley, who I have a lot of respect for. She goes way back. She's moved on to other things now but I wanted to make sure we honored all the work that she put in to a lot of these things.

Joshua Breitbart: Maya Wiley was council to the mayor. She hired me into this position and gave me this opportunity and providing credible leadership really the first time the city was really taking responsibility for Broadband for all New Yorkers. We've been very fortunate that after she left Miguel Gamino became the chief technology officer. Broadband was put into his office where I now work and I work for him. Again one of the great things about New York is great people come to work for our city and so the opportunity to -- I've worked with Maya and now work with Miguel is a great opportunity.

Christopher Mitchell: Queensbridge Connected, how did the project start?

Joshua Breitbart: Maya had actually written about a project that I had helped some called Red Hook Wi-Fi that was ongoing for a number of years before Mayor de Blasio was elected.

Christopher Mitchell: Also before Sandy came and I think everyone in the country was paying attention to tech policy at least saw an article about it.

Joshua Breitbart: It was a great asset. The community built it up. Also continued to build it up after Sandy had really made it a part of their recovery and a part of strengthening their community both from a tech sense as well as from a social sense. Maya saw that as an example for how broadband could help low-income communities in New York. She wrote an article telling the mayor what she thought about that. They mayor saw that article and asked her to lead out this broadband effort. Queensbridge Connected was the first time that we tried to apply the lessons from Red Hook Wi-Fi which was a totally community-led effort, and how to do that from a city-led perspective which really is the first step toward thinking about how the city can do something like that at scale. We took a lot of the lessons from Red Hook in terms of community engagement, and everything from designing the initiative to actually participating in the installation of the equipment. I think that we've been very successful in incorporating those lessons into Queensbridge Connected, and that's part of why we're getting recognized with this award at the Broadband Community Summit.

Christopher Mitchell: If I could exaggerate for a second, I feel like as a policy person thinking about how to solve low-income access, I think there's this dream of, you see a community that has this desire, you come, you put the technology up, you make it available, people are happy, there's parties in the streets, problem solved. There's a really good Wired article that talked about some of the lessons that were learned and I got the sense that you can't just wander in, throw wireless access points around and the problem is done.

Joshua Breitbart: There are a few steps there. I think what New York is recognizing is first of all, we've moved past this idea that the infrastructure's all fine in urban areas. In fact it's not all fine. In fact there's quite a lot disparity and inequity and we've put some effort into measuring that so we can really point to what those inequities are.

Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that I think cities often -- You have someone that's in power, they really want to get things done and they may understand problems and they may not go to the trouble of really empirically documenting rigorously that there's a problem, but you guys did that.

Joshua Breitbart: Yeah, and we continue to do that. There's a issue with infrastructure and some inequities there. Also if you go talk to people about what their consumer experience is they will generally tell you that they are not satisfied. That maybe was an okay situation when broadband was something for a small fraction of the city-

Christopher Mitchell: Before every homework assignment had homework components for kids.

Joshua Breitbart: -- but broadband is now an essential utility and that means cities have to take some responsibility for making sure that all residents are connected to it, and that all residents are getting equitable service. That does require some form of empirical data and in some ways we have to invent that field. There is helpful information in the American Community Survey and the FCC form 477 data but it's not enough, so we're looking at how we can build on that and do all of our own measures that really match to the principles that we have of equitable, affordable, high-performing service. That residents have choices for those services.

Christopher Mitchell: Getting back to, explicitly about the Queensbridge project. One of the things that we should really cover is very explicitly what it does. Just in elevator pitch, what problem is that solving?

Joshua Breitbart: Queensbridge Connected is a free high-speed Wi-Fi throughout the entire Queensbridge Community, plus a number of initiatives to support the residents to make use of that free service.

Christopher Mitchell: The size of the community?

Joshua Breitbart: There's seven thousand residents across basically six city blocks. About 96 buildings.

Christopher Mitchell: The scale is amazing. It's probably the size of St. Paul's downtown, to exaggerate a little.

Joshua Breitbart: But it is sizeable. The building's were built in the 1930s so this is a retro-fit. There is some existing wiring that we can make use of in the installation but that's certainly one of the challenges with New York City public housing. But at Queensbridge there's a great community leadership from the Tenant Association. There's a really great community organization called Jacob Resettlement. We referred to those onsite organizations as cornerstones in New York for the NYCHA communities. Through them we're also able to bring in older adults’ technology services which is provided training to some of the seniors. And there too, folks went door-to-door talking to people about what kind of services they wanted, what they wanted training in. They designed a curriculum and they're now on their third iteration of that curriculum. They're focusing on things like health in addition to digital literacy skills, how they can use Fitbits to be more healthy, how they can use digital tools to be more engaged in community organizing to make changes in their community. It's again, a real focus on the Queensbridge residents and how they can be the leaders of this initiative.

Christopher Mitchell: There's several things there I want to follow-up on. One is the going door-to-door because I think, again in this exaggeration of what a public policy person might think is this sense of, "Everybody wants a broadband and if you're in a place where you can't afford it, it's suddenly available for free, you're just going to want it." But one of the lessons I gather from that Wired article that talked about this and I'm sure will link to in the show notes was that, there's a history and people don't necessarily trust someone coming to their door or getting a pamphlet in the mail that says, "Here's this thing. Go and use it."

Joshua Breitbart: Nor should they. From the beginning we knew that we wanted to look for every opportunity to engage the residents as the leaders and drivers of this project, so finding the vendor we wanted a partner that was going to do that. Spot On's network's hired Queensbridge residents to work on the project both as ambassadors to go talk to people about the project, explain why they might need to put a wireless access point in their apartment. Also hired somebody with an IT background who had been through a training program sponsored by the city, hired that person to be involved as a technician and do the installation. Part of that is building trust to get access to people's apartment, it's very practical, but it also does lead to a much more robust set of impacts of the project because now you're giving people not just a way to connect to the global Internet and all that has to offer, but a way of actually strengthening their local community. By installing a Wi-Fi network you're connecting people who live next door to each other, not just those people separately to the world.

Christopher Mitchell: That's one of the things that I find really promising. I think a lot of us are afraid of the way that Internet can pull us away from community. One of the things that several conversations recently brought back is that this local organizing has spillover benefits for other things. It makes the neighborhoods, the housing units, better, like people better know their neighbors.

Joshua Breitbart: Strong social fabric is key to so many things. We worked with NYCHA to pick a community where there was that community leadership already in place that we could really build on. That's a really key component. I think you're also touching on some of the increasing challenges of the Internet in the way it can really fray relationships and have some negative social impacts, whether it's exposing people to loss of privacy to online abuse and harassment.

Christopher Mitchell: In particular, let's be very clear about this, communities of color and women. You and I are white guys. It's amazing when you look at studies of people like you and I. If we changed our avatar, the way people respond to the things that we tweet regularly changes and this is something that is, I think a lot of us being white guys making policy aren't familiar with. It's not something where you think, "No one harassed me." Change your avatar for a few days, say some provocative things and see what happens.

Joshua Breitbart: Even the same experience of harassment is not even experienced the same way. Then if that's certainly compounded if you are low-income, your time is restricted, your equipment access is restricted, your digital literacy skills might also be limited. All these things really compound those problems and you're right, create disparate impacts for communities of color, low-income communities, and many other groups. For New York City, we're recognizing this. I think that we are maybe the first city to begin to look at how we can take responsibility for the space of the Internet itself. The chief technology officer and the chair of the city's Human Rights Commission are convening a working group to review what the city is doing to address some of these issues where in a place like Queensbridge, the city can take a strong role in what the privacy policy is, what open Internet policies are, and really shows the importance of the city being involved, certainly now that we see that the federal government is walking back from that role. All these things really are heightening the need for cities to be very much involved in, not just of the delivery of service but in making sure that their residents have a good experience on the Internet.

Christopher Mitchell: I think that's worth noting. I think a lot of us would like it if cities could focus on infrastructure and walk away, but the reason we're focusing on infrastructure is to create good outcomes. Those good outcomes won't necessarily just happen because there is more ubiquitous Wi-Fi available.

Joshua Breitbart: That's absolutely right. I think what we see in Queensbridge Connected is that the best outcomes come from when you do those things in tandem. You're embedding the work with the residents to identify what the best experience is, and you're installing the technology and building out the infrastructure with the residents as part of that same process. Doing those two things together is really how you get the most out of the Internet in terms of positive impacts for your community and your city. What we've seen at Queensbridge is the way that the role that the city can play in that process working with the New York City Housing Authority, with our Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, with our non-profit partners, with the Resident Association, and now we want to see how we expand on those lessons and move towards the goal of universal broadband for all New Yorkers.

Christopher Mitchell: You have a history of .. Way back into what we called Muni Wi-Fi in the day, of looking at these and finding that when you try to just provide the technology and you're over the community and you're not really within the community it doesn't work out. It's not like you're coming at this afresh. This is something has been awhile. You have some experience with.

Joshua Breitbart: Let's say a lot of people contributed to learning these lessons. In the early days of cities being involved in broadband, with Wireless Philadelphia for example. There was a robust community engagement process that led to a plan that then they veered away from to involve a corporate partner, EarthLink, to deliver the service. At that point there was really this fallout of community leadership, community engagement, and a real loss of a sense of ownership on the part of the community. That was a real contributor to the downfall of that project. There were other problems in terms of density with the nodes, predatory pricing by the competitors, the way that it was setup with the non-profit partner, and you can link to their report in the show notes as well. In any major technology project you're going to have steps at the beginning where you're going to need the community to continue to support as you iterate through those challenges to move towards success. If you aren't working in close partnership with the community, you're not going to retain that support, so that was a really important lesson there. I think New York and other cities have really seen the importance of that.

Christopher Mitchell: Thank you for coming on and telling us more about the program and the lessons learned.

Joshua Breitbart: Thank you, Chris.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Joshua Breitbart talking about New York City's Queensbridge Connected project. We have transcripts for this and other Community Broadband Bits podcasts available at Email as at with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter, his handle is @CommunityNets. Follow stories on Twitter, the handle is @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and all of the podcasts in the ILSR family, iTunes Stitcher or wherever else you get your podcasts. Never miss out on our original research, subscribe to our monthly newsletter at Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle licensed through Creative Commons, and thanks for listening to episode 254 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.