Credit Jonathan Blanc/The New York Public Library
All summer, kids have been hanging out in front of the Morris Park Library in the Bronx, before opening hours and after closing. They bring their computers to pick up the Wi-Fi signal that is leaking out of the building, because they canât afford internet access at home. Theyâre there during the school year, too, even during the winter â itâs the only way they can complete their online math homework.
Last year, the Federal Communications Commission reaffirmed what these students already knew: Access to broadband is necessary to be a productive member of society. In June, a federal appeals court upheld the commissionâs authority to regulate the internet as a public utility.
The courtâs decision is a partial victory. While the ruling ensures that the information superhighway can be maintained for the public interest, it doesnât help anyone who simply canât afford to have access to it. As many as one in five Americans remains in the digital dark. To start to tackle that problem, the F.C.C. has recently expanded its Lifeline program to provide subsidies for broadband access..
Here in the worldâs information capital, New Yorkers are still scrounging for a few bars of web access, dropped like crumbs from a table. With broadband costing on average $ 55 per month, 25 percent of all households and 50 percent of those making less than $ 20,000 lack this service at home.
People line up, sometimes for hours, to use the library systemâs free computers. Go into any library in the nation and youâll most likely see the same thing. They come to do what so many of us take for granted: apply for government services, study or do research, talk with family or friends, inform themselves as voters, and just participate in our society and culture â so much of which now takes place online.
Our public libraries are charged with providing free access to information, and in recent years we have had to create new ways of doing that. Leaking broadband (frankly, accidentally) onto the branch stoops is not enough.
In 2014, working with Mayor Bill de Blasio, and with support from Google and the Knight, Open Society and Robin Hood Foundations, we were able to let our patrons âcheck outâ the internet. In all five boroughs â and also in Maine and Kansas, to see how it might work in more rural settings â libraries are lending a total of 10,000 cellphone-size Wi-Fi hot-spot devices for up to a year in neighborhoods that are digital deserts. With this access at home, young children and teenagers in our after-school programs and immigrants in our rapidly expanding English classes continue to learn and connect after they exit the libraryâs doors.
Yet we need help from more than libraries. No child can have equal access to education, nor any worker equal access to a job, without access to the internet and the digital training to use it skillfully. Our federal, state and local policies must recognize there can be no full equality without digital equality. We can also require the companies that reach millions of customers via city infrastructure to provide more affordable rates for low-income residents, and to ensure that broadband connections are provided to poor neighborhoods.
Another, bolder approach, would be to create Wi-Fi for large geographic areas. Dozens of municipalities, including Philadelphia, Hartford and Minneapolis, have tried to offer Wi-Fi in their entire cities, with mixed success. Under Mayor de Blasio, New York City recently began an innovative program that refashions old public pay phones into Wi-Fi hot spots. Libraries and schools could add to this growing network of free broadband. Perhaps we should project Wi-Fi from every public building, with boosters to create a minimal level of home access as a public utility for all â and those who can afford a premium service may pay for one.
I know there are technological hurdles to providing universal broadband. But the commitment Iâm asking for isnât particularly novel. Early in the last century, the nationâs leaders decided, at no small cost, to bring clean water, then electricity, then phone service to all parts of our country. And from this foundation we built the wealthiest, most productive economy in the world.
When New York City was founded by the Dutch, it had two great strengths: a population of varied backgrounds and ideas, and access to information, through its vibrant shipping industry. This is what made us a global city. Todayâs technology revolution promises to provide more information, more widely than ever. Yet we have left almost two million New Yorkers in the digital dark.
We can fix this. We can realize our cityâs full potential in the digital age. And the kids in the Bronx can get their math homework done.