Last minute changes to the City’s LinkNYC Plan brings
more digital resources to Queens. Photo by Jordan Gibbons.
BY JOE MARVILLI
As the City looks towards a digital future, there are some questions over whether Queens will get its fair share of resources.
Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Wi-Fi plan, called LinkNYC, will replace the City’s defunct payphones with state-of-the-art digital hubs that offer high-speed Internet, charging stations and more. The plan was approved on Dec. 10 by the Franchise and Concession Review Committee, with some adjustments to the original contract that increase support for the outer boroughs.
However, there is some concern over whether the initiative is too Manhattan-centric.
According to Dept. of Information Technology and Telecommunications spokesperson Nicholas Sbordone, each borough will see more than an 11 percent increase in structures when compared to the current number of payphones in the City. About 95 percent of the first 4,000 Links will be built around where the payphones exist over the first four years.
“This is so that existing conduit and fiber infrastructure can be leveraged, disruption of the sidewalks is minimized and the Links can be rolled out most effectively,” he said.
The remaining 3,500 of the 7,500 structures planned for the first eight years will be sited with the help of the Borough Presidents and the communities they serve. The proposed contract also leaves room for expansion to 10,000 kiosks in total.
Around 95 percent of these first 4,000 kiosks will also have Gigabit speeds. Out of the remaining 3,500 Links, 2,000 will have Gigabit speeds and the other 1,500 will have a slower minimum speed of 100 Mbps.
“Because fiber does not exist everywhere in the City, Gigabit speeds cannot currently be guaranteed in all places,” Sbordone said, adding that the Federal Communications Commission defines high-speed broadband at four Mbps, with a possible increase to 25 Mbps.
Therefore, all Links would be at least 25 times faster than the FCC’s current definition and at least four times faster than the increased minimum for high speed.
Initially, the difference in speed was a sticking point for many, but last minute negotiations at the Franchise and Concession Review Committee added another 32 Gigabit machines for Queens.
In this case, under the LinkNYC network, Queens will have a minimum of 1,239 kiosks in total, all with at least 100 Mbps Wi-Fi. Out of this number, 659 would have up to Gigabit speeds after the first four years.
While Comptroller Scott Stringer and the five Borough Presidents were initially concerned that the plan would serve City residents unevenly, the changes made during Wednesday’s meeting persuaded them to vote in favor of LinkNYC.
“LinkNYC’s proposal to put high speed Wi-Fi kiosks throughout the City will not by itself eliminate the digital divide, but marks an important step towards bridging that gap,” Stringer said. “We took a good contract and made it better.”
In the days before the vote, the elected officials were calling for a Five Borough Broadband Bill of Rights soon after the details about the City’s plan were released. It asked the administration to ensure that the contract for LinkNYC provides equal Wi-Fi speed throughout the five boroughs. It also wanted stronger oversight provisions for contract requirements. At the moment, the DoITT commissioner is allowed to waive various requirements, such as siting, removal and replacement schedules and technology requirements.
The bill of rights calls for greater transparency on revenue forecasts and locations, community input and design enhancements that use alternative energy, such as solar power.
Queens Borough President Melinda Katz felt that the City adequately addressed the Borough Presidents’ requests, leading to her support for the initiative.
“Free public Internet is more than just a leisurely perk, it’s a way to fairly bridge the digital divide already predisposed to income inequality,” she said. “City Hall has sufficiently addressed our concerns in an [memorandum of understanding] that formalizes a siting agreement, a plan to ensure equitable access and a process for community input.”
A major challenge against LinkNYC came in the form of a lawsuit filed by Telebeam Telecommunications Corporation against the City. The complaint is seeking to prevent LinkNYC from creating a monopoly, as the contract for the kiosks was awarded to a sole franchise, CityBridge. The contract will force present franchises, including Telebeam, to exit the market for this sole business group. The suit states that this move is in violation of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
“Telebeam maintains that the City’s policies and conduct erect barriers to entry and barriers to exit for the provisioning of telecommunications services by Telebeam from the City’s [public right of way],” the complaint said. “The City, in implementing and awarding the Exclusionary Franchise, has structured its policy in a way that violates [the Telecommunications Act of 1996]. This time, however, the rejection of competition is much more blatant; one and only one entity will be allowed to provide all payphone service.”
Councilman Mark Weprin (D-Bayside), who had also criticized the plan for creating a monopoly, said that a provision requiring technology upgrades in the kiosks every few years has eased this point of contention.
“I was upset they were granting a monopoly to the group. There was no incentive to update them because the money was all in the advertising space,” he said. “Now, they not only have to update the tech, but they have to check all the sites. We will monitor them closely.”
Several Queens organizations are in support of LinkNYC, including Seth Bornstein, executive director of the Queens Economic Development Corporation.
“Repurposing phone booths to allow for Wi-Fi, free nationwide phone calls, phone charging stations, and wayfinding would be a huge benefit for the Borough of Queens,” he said.
Reach Joe Marvilli at (718) 357-7400, Ext. 125, firstname.lastname@example.org, or @JoeMarvilli.