Remember when the city announced that old pay phone booths are going to be converted into wifi kiosks? That was back in 2012, but earlier this month, that proclamation went from being just a hazy idea (like the 2nd Avenue subway line) to an actionable plan when officials announced that communications consortium CityBridge would begin the process of converting 10,000 former pay phone stations into kiosks that would provide free domestic phone service as well as WiFi touted to be a hundred times faster than a municipal network. Well, faster for some people. Because, as it turns out, the “five-borough Wifi network” would operate up to ten times slower in poorer neighborhoods in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Staten Island.
This bit of enraging information comes courtesy of the New York Daily News, which ran an examination of the developing citywide system. The problem, you see, is that the network is shored up by advertising, and advertisers are more interested in capturing a wealthy demographic. So, per the News:
As a result, all of the 2,500-plus locations in Manhattan are high speed, giving the borough with 20% of the city’s population fully 65% of all the fast kiosks.
Meanwhile, the Bronx will get speedy Wi-Fi at 361 kiosks — just 6% of the fast Wi-Fi stations in the city. The borough will have slower service at 375 non-advertising kiosks, which replace old pay phones.
And in Brooklyn, that means that certain neighborhoods will get better service than others. In Brownsville, where half the population receives public assistance, only ten pay phones will get fast wifi service. Similarly, Bed-Stuy will only get 11 and Crown Heights just 9.
So the plan is basically to make wifi more accessible where it already is incredibly easy to get, and essentially shut out the residents of New York that could really use it. (Just try applying to a job these days, or even trying to get healthcare, without a working internet connection.) Not to mention that this whole thing has a very strong racial component: Brownsville, Bed-Stuy, and Crown Heights all have majority black or Hispanic populations.
It’s all particularly galling because of the rhetoric De Blasio used when he unveiled the plan: “Affordable access to broadband for all New Yorkers (is) essential for everything we need to do to be a fair and just city,” De Blasio said. “We can’t continue to have a digital divide that holds back so many of our citizens.” But, of course, by having a wifi plan that’s supported by advertisers, De Blasio is enforcing rather than breaking down that divide.
According to the mayor’s office, this two-tiered system (fast and slow internet speeds) is “only temporary,” and the point is that they’re introducing wifi into those neighborhoods at all. But introducing inequality into a system’s infrastructure? That’s never a temporary move.