Two and a half years after it was announced that New York City would spend $157 million to build municipal broadband infrastructure in poor neighborhoods, city officials have quietly canceled the plan, Gothamist has learned.
The now-nixed broadband expansion was the second phase of the 2020 Internet Master Plan, a massive endeavor launched during the de Blasio administration that aimed to connect 1.2 million New Yorkers to free or low-cost, high-speed internet. The project had been on hold this year, after Mayor Eric Adams assumed office.
After Gothamist received a tip the project had been canceled, officials from the city’s Office of Technology and Innovation (OTI) confirmed the decision on Nov. 29 — about a year after the de Blasio administration announced it had chosen a dozen businesses — including a handful owned or led by women or people of color — to spearhead the effort. The cancellation has not been publicly announced, but city officials said those businesses were informed sometime in November.
“We let all of them know last week that we had effectively canceled that proposal,” NYC Chief Technology Officer Matthew Fraser said.
Steven Amarante, cofounder of Sky Packets, one of the internet service providers chosen for the initiative, said in an email that he was “disappointed” by the news, which he said was communicated to him the same day it was confirmed with Gothamist.
“We were excited to bring affordable broadband options to the residents of Red Hook Houses,” he added, referring to the Brooklyn New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) development.
Fraser, who was appointed by Adams, added that the previous administration’s plan didn’t make full use of the city’s existing broadband infrastructure and that OTI was planning to issue a replacement proposal sometime in the future.
When it was introduced three years ago, the Internet Master Plan’s creators calculated that about 1.5 million people, disproportionately the poorest New Yorkers, lacked both a home and mobile internet connection. About 3.4 million were going without at least one of those, at the time.
Many more only have one or two providers to choose from, locking them into expensive or subpar plans. One of those providers, Verizon, was sued by the city in 2017 for not installing fiber optic internet on time.
Under the Master Plan, a variety of internet service providers would use city-owned infrastructure, like rooftops and utility poles, to build fiber optic networks in underserved areas. They’d also wire up NYCHA buildings, guaranteeing affordable high-speed internet access for residents. The ultimate goal was universal, affordable broadband connectivity citywide.
In the summer of 2020, spurred by the COVID-19 crisis, then-Mayor Bill de Blasio diverted $87 million from the NYPD’s budget to fund the next phase of the plan.
The plan was praised by experts, and a pilot program brought cheap or free broadband to more than a dozen NYCHA developments, installed by local providers.
“I was thrilled,” Clayton Banks, Silicon Harlem founder and CEO, told Gothamist earlier this year. “I was all in.”
In the summer of 2020, spurred by the COVID-19 crisis, then-Mayor Bill de Blasio diverted $87 million from the NYPD’s budget to fund the next phase of the plan — a $157 million effort that would bring $15-a-month internet service to 600,000 New Yorkers in neighborhoods hit hard by the pandemic.
By the fall of 2021, the city had chosen a slate of businesses to lay the fiber optic cable. Some, like internet service providers Silicon Harlem and Sky Packets, had participated in the pilot program. About half were led by women or people of color. And all agreed to the plan’s principles, which stated that the service they provided would need to be equitable, fast, affordable and secure.
A plan in purgatory
Since the change of mayoral administrations at the turn of 2022, the plan has more or less been on pause. Some of its architects departed for other jobs, and Mayor Adams reorganized a number of technology-related city agencies into one umbrella organization, OTI.
This spring, Fraser, who helms the new agency, told city lawmakers that the plan was “under review” and that the chosen businesses still hadn’t been given the go-ahead to start work.
“Anything that moves forward from this point, it’s this administration’s burden,” Fraser said at the time. “We’re in the process of unpacking every component of the [plan] and deciding what’s the best way to move forward.”
Then, in September, Adams announced an entirely different plan, called Big Apple Connect, that would give NYCHA residents free internet access for three years. (It’s not clear if the program will be extended or simply end after that, meaning residents could have to start paying for internet again.) Over that period, the initiative would cost about $90 million, city officials told lawmakers, and would be administered by Altice and Charter, two of the massive cable companies that already dominate much of the city’s broadband landscape.
These providers are already installed in NYCHA buildings, officials said, making it easy to get residents connected quickly. City Council members praised the idea of broadband expansion, but criticized the new plan for its price, particularly when there’s a federal program that does basically the same thing.
Many weeks have since passed without an update on the fate of the Internet Master Plan, although the city did release a strategic outline in October mentioning some other broadband expansion initiatives. In November, NextCity reported that the Internet Master Plan had been mostly abandoned and that one of the companies tapped for the broadband expansion had laid off staff — although they didn’t attribute this explicitly to the city’s cancellation.
Avi Lichtenstein, cofounder of building-level internet service provider Younity, told Gothamist that his company put off “a lot of hiring” that they’d planned to do for their Internet Master Plan work, which included broadband installation for 50,000 households. Still, he said, Younity got off easier than some of the other awardees.
“Thankfully it didn’t affect us too much. We didn’t do any mass hirings or make any crazy changes prior to this happening,” Lichtenstein said. “There are other companies that got screwed a lot more than we did. They already got fiber.”
The email in the coffin
Finally, the notices started going out.
“The City has cancelled [sic] the above referenced Request for Proposals and determined not to make an award,” read one Nov. 29 email, addressed to the companies that had applied to participate.
That same day, Fraser told Gothamist that the Internet Master Plan, which had been on hold for the last several months, was moving too slowly — and that the city needed to focus on meeting New Yorkers’ immediate needs.
“Instead of looking at these long-term monolithic programs, we had to take control and fix the program that we had immediately,” he said. Fraser added that the money slated for the broadband expansion is in a “holding state” and that the city is still planning to build more broadband infrastructure at some point in the future. The NYCHA developments connected under the Internet Master Plan’s pilot program will continue being serviced by the local businesses that participated.
In addition to Big Apple Connect, OTI is focusing on improving connection speeds in city public schools, enhancing connectivity in public buildings and deploying towering 5G LinkNYC kiosks, according to the agency’s strategic plan from October. In early December, the agency announced it was opening the Queens Gigabit Center, a sub-section of a Jamaica senior citizen center offering computer classes and high-speed internet.
The city will “continue to explore other opportunities, such as franchise arrangements and public-private partnerships to accelerate the speed and capability of broadband deployment, particularly in underserved neighborhoods,” October’s strategic plan read.
City Councilmember Jennifer Gutiérrez, who chairs the Council’s technology committee, called on the Adams administration to include minority- and women-owned business enterprises(MWBE) in its future plans for broadband expansion.
“We need a robust and comprehensive plan that looks at how we can support these MWBEs moving forward and ensure that they are a meaningful part of this ecosystem,” she said in a statement to Gothamist.
It’s about helping the community.
Veteran NYC technologists said they’re not surprised by the city’s pivot. Stuart Reid and Douglas Frasier run the Smart Community Initiative, one of the chosen vendors for the canceled plan, and have been working on municipal tech for more than two decades. They said that long-term, ambitious agendas often don’t survive the transition of mayoral power.
“We’ve seen the problems when one administration comes in,” Frasier said. “We went through eight commissioners over 25 years. Whenever someone new comes in, they act like whatever came before didn’t work.”
Still, the two said they’re impressed with Adams’ and the chief technology officer’s commitment to expanding broadband access.
“They have the economic power to do a lot of good things for a lot of people,” Frasier said.
Asked what he’d like the administration to do next, he emphasized the importance of teaming up with organizations that are already working in the neighborhoods the city hopes to serve.
“It’s not about helping companies,” he said. “It’s about helping the community.”