New York Times Room For Debate

The Internet for All: Does the industry need to be more closely regulated to provide wider access to lower-income people?

 

Government Should Invest in Fiber Optics

Susan Crawford

Susan Crawford, a visiting professor at Harvard Law School, is the author of "Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age." She is on Twitter.

UPDATED JULY 11, 2014, 12:15 PM

Because we treat high-speed Internet access as a luxury rather than basic infrastructure — akin to electricity and clean water — we're leaving most economically disadvantaged people in New York behind. Although access is "available" to 97 percent of people living in the five boroughs, just 37 percent of people in New York State with annual incomes of $20,000 or less have a high-speed Internet access connection at home, compared with 85 percent of those with incomes over $60,000. Having a wire in your home is too expensive for people of modest means.

Earlier this year, I met a young man named Daniel who wants to design virtual environments. Daniel knows he'll get a job and he's already midway through his training in virtual reality design. That's because Daniel lives in Stockholm, where 100 percent of people have a wire in their home. Even in a low-income section of Stockholm called Husby – where 86 percent of residents are immigrants, unemployment hovers at about 8 percent and monthly incomes average $2,250 – gigabit fiber access (1,000 Mbps download and upload, 100 times as fast as standard access in America) costs only $28 per month.

Stockholm, unlike New York City, decided 20 years ago that it didn't want to be under the thumb of any existing communications company. It also wanted to avoid competing in the private market or regulating the existing players. So the city built neutral fiber lines and leased them out to private operators so they could light the lines with electronic equipment and serve customers. Result: intense competition, low prices and universal coverage. The project paid for itself in short order and now brings millions of dollars of revenue annually into city coffers.

A similar program in New York City would require the city to expand the work of an entity called Empire City Subways that maintains and operates the conduits for communications lines in Manhattan and the Bronx. Landlords of apartment buildings and offices would need to install boxes so that neutral fiber would get all the way into the building. Then young residents wouldn't have to hang around the local library after closing time in order to get online.

The problem is that entity is now a subsidiary of Verizon. Verizon has enormous power in New York City; it is a very large employer and taxpayer; pays millions in video franchise fees to the city; and runs the national security infrastructure.

But unless the city acts to control its destiny, Verizon and Time Warner Cable will always call the shots.

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