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3/21/2007
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New Yorkers Want To Stay On Right Side Of Digital Divide

The City Council has scheduled hearings on the availability and affordability of broadband in the five boroughs as part of a broader initiative to ensure New Yorkers benefit from technology.

New York City's political leaders want to make sure the largest city in the country doesn't end up on the wrong side of the digital divide.

"Without a broadband connection, a person is at an immediate disadvantage in this information-based global economy," New York City Council Member Gale Brewer said. "Some parts of New York City are among the most wired and wireless in the world, but affordable broadband access varies from neighborhood to neighborhood. It's time we gave all New Yorkers the chance to enter the 21st century."

Brewer, who leads a local government technology committee, has scheduled hearings on the availability and affordability of broadband in the five boroughs as part of a broader initiative to ensure New Yorkers benefit from technology. New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer and several members of Congress also have listed the issue as a high priority.

Although all of New York's public libraries provide free broadband (as well as wireless) access, New York City and upstate are behind other parts of the country, and the world, in terms of governments granting free citywide wireless networks.

"In Asia, they have four or five times faster speeds at half the price," said Bruce Lai, Brewer's chief of staff, during an interview Wednesday. "Why is America behind?"

The Pew Internet and American Life Project found that less than half of respondents with household incomes under $49,000 used the Internet for e-mail and to surf the Web after a survey in December 2006. The median household income in New York City was just over $38,000 in 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

"For New York to remain competitive in the global marketplace, we must ensure that every New Yorker is given access to high-speed and reliable Internet connections," Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion Jr. said in a news announcement.

Though the Bronx has some affluent neighborhoods, more than half the households there earned less than $30,000 in 2000, according to Census figures, which estimated the borough's population at 1.35 million. The Bronx will host the first hearing on Friday.

Last year, Brewer helped form a broadband advisory committee to identify and eventually overcome some of the impediments to universal deployment and access. Lai said Brewer and other committee members are particularly concerned about lack of Internet access among small businesses, nonprofits, and New York City's 1.1 million schoolchildren.

Local franchise agreements require providers to offer access to all residential areas, but some packages are unaffordable for working class families, Lai said. Right now, there's no reliable data on average prices or availability. A consulting company is scheduled to release a report providing some data this summer.

Time Warner Cable offers a $99 introductory package that includes broadband Internet, digital phone, and cable. It also offers a high-speed EarthLink Intro account for $29.95 monthly. Verizon also offers low introductory packages, but aging copper wires and other infrastructure problems affect reliability. In the Red Hook neighborhood in Brooklyn, residents experience Internet outages during heavy rains, Lai said.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said that for New York City to remain a leader in the global market, residents and visitors must have high-speed, quality, universal access.

"In a world that is increasingly reliant on high-speed, easily accessible Internet, not having high-speed Internet access is like not having air to breathe," Schumer said.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg also has stressed the importance of extending broadband to all areas of the city.

"Although New York City residents and businesses have access to an array of high-speed telecommunications connections and services that no other city can match, there are specific parts of the city where access is limited, such as Hunts Point in the Bronx and Sunset Park, Brooklyn," Bloomberg said as he announced a telecommunications action plan (PDF) nearly two years ago. "If New York City is to maintain its role as a world center of finance, communications, and culture, we have to extend access to broadband communications to all, as well as continuously improve the reliability of our telecommunications networks and take advantage of emerging technologies."

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