Some NYCHA residents to get free broadband

NYCHA chairwoman S

NYCHA chairwoman Shola Olatoye and Mayor Bill de Blasio address Mott Haven Houses residents at the announcement of a new pilot project to wire five NYCHA complexes for free broadband.

Mott Haven Houses one of five complexes citywide that will be wired

Mott Haven Houses on Alexander Ave. is one of five NYCHA complexes whose residents are slated to receive free Internet access, as part of a federal initiative recently announced by President Obama.

A third of low-income families in the city still don’t have Internet in their homes, which makes applying for jobs, paying bills, doing homework and taking care of other necessary tasks challenging. The city will contribute $10 million to the program, as part of its ongoing effort to wire as many New Yorkers as possible within a decade, including the conversion of payphones into wi-fi hotspots and loaning hotspot devices to some library patrons in neighborhoods like Mott Haven.

“In this day and age, broadband access is foundational to our participation in society,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio at a press conference in the Mott Haven Community Center on July 16. New Yorkers shouldn’t have to choose between paying their Internet bill and paying for essentials like rent or medicine, said the mayor.

Standing alongside him, NYCHA chair Shola Olatoye agreed that Internet access is, “no longer a luxury, it’s a necessity.”

The 2,500 residents of Mott Haven Houses will all receive access to basic broadband, even those who are currently paying for service, but they will have the option to upgrade to higher speeds for a charge. Currently, residents’ options for logging on include free Internet at local libraries, checking wireless hotspots out of select library branches and using computers on one of NYCHA’s two roving “digital vans.”

NYCHA resident Marsha Robinson said she and her children often use the van to do homework because she could no longer afford to pay for Internet in their apartment. Robinson recently received her associate’s degree and found a new job after working on her resume in the van. “They helped me get that job,” she said.

Though NYCHA residents are excited about the prospect of free Internet access, it remains unclear whether they will have priority for the jobs that will be generated to lay the infrastructure needed to wire the buildings. In addition to procuring the necessary hardware, NYCHA will have to run cables into each apartment.

At least one tech savvy entrepreneur, however, said he is unconvinced that the new program is the best the city can do. Stuart Reid, who co-founded the Digital Divide Project, which trains a handful of NYCHA residents who then project Internet signals throughout their buildings from their apartments, said his approach is far cheaper than wiring every apartment. About 400 residents per day at Mott Haven Houses receive free wireless service through that project.

“They’re not innovators,” Reid said of the federal/city collaboration to wire all apartments. “If you’re resource rich, you don’t have to innovate. If you’re resource poor, you have to innovate.

City officials expect ConnectHome will be operational first in Queensbridge in 15 months, before rolling out to Red Hook in Brooklyn, then Mott Haven. No timeline was given as to when local residents can expect to receive their service.