In New York City, We've Taken The Digital Divide Into Our Own Hands During Covid
from the if-you-want-something-done-right dept
Broadband is in a state of disarray in America. This was the case long before COVID-19 brought the world to its knees earlier this year. Roughly a third of Americans have no access to broadband internet, with the majority stating cost as the most important obstacle. Even in highly connected urban areas, such as New York City, a lack of connectivity impacts millions of residents. According to Mayor de Blasio’s Internet Master Plan, 40% of New Yorkers lack access to home or mobile broadband, including roughly 20% who lack access to both.
Many of these internet black out zones are in low income and minority communities. As the coronavirus pandemic set in, internet accessibility became more crucial than ever. However, as schools transitioned to online learning, many children were unable to participate – and continue to face the same challenge today, months later. Our community at NYC Mesh is fighting to bring digital equity to all communities of NY, and our solution is simple: provide internet to everyone. As COVID makes our society ever more digital, I believe our solution provides a meaningful model for how grassroots movements can shape the connectivity landscape.
At NYC Mesh we are developing strategies to improve internet accessibility, by creating an open Wi-Fi wireless and fiber network in three boroughs – and more to come. Since NYC Mesh was founded in 2014, it has nearly doubled in size every year. However, like many other organizations, COVID took a toll on our ability to expand the network and service members.
At the beginning of the year, NYC Mesh had about 500 successful nodes on the network – rooftop antennas connecting residents online and further expanding the reach of our community infrastructure in the city. The network was blanketing lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, with plans to begin connecting residents in Queens. Community meetings were filling rooms and teams of volunteers were at the ready to carry out seven installs a week, update our supporting webpage, participate in hackathons, perform maintenance and keep the network running, or any other of the many tasks involved in bridging community organizing and connectivity.
As with the rest of New York, COVID forced NYC Mesh to adapt, and quickly. We did so by acting locally: the weeks before New York’s shelter in place order entered into effect, volunteers attempted to connect immediate neighbors, anyone in walking distance that we could connect. Ultimately, however, COVID forced the organization to limit its work to only emergency maintenance or circumstances when a new member had no other means to get online.
Despite these limitations there were other ways we could help. NYC Mesh operates almost entirely on the suggested contributions of its members. We don’t speak the language of “service cutoffs,” billing, fees, or other creations of for-profit ISPs. When members of our community lost a job or simply had to prioritize other expenses in their life, they could rest assured that they wouldn’t lose their connection online. Of course, as with groups across the nation, our monthly community meetings transitioned online; PPE became a requirement for all in-person site visits and installations; and we added digital training videos and maintained an extensive online doc to help educate our new members.
We started taking in requests for new installations again in June and the number of install requests have once again reached about seven a week. While some of our regular volunteers have had to step back as a result of the COVID shutdown, new volunteers have stepped forward, who have brought with them amazing contributions to help continue the expansion of the Mesh. While COVID may have slowed down NYC Mesh’s operations, we still continue to pursue our goal of bringing digital equity to all New Yorkers.
Digital learning was an integral part of education long before the coronavirus and its importance is only increasing. As the need for broadband access rises, the gap in internet access has become more evident, and the consequences more severe. Coronavirus provided the perfect example of how the lack of broadband access can put many, especially children at risk. Children, especially children of color, are receiving less days of instructed learning than their more privileged peers. Prior to COVID, a child could go to an after-school program or library to get online. Now, most of these facilities are closed, limiting the options of those without internet at home to receive an education.
NYC Mesh is here to organize, empower, and connect, which is why we’re partnering with the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) to expand the mesh network into public housing and enable free, fair, and community-based internet access to residents. The people of these communities face many obstacles, a lack of broadband access being one of the most severe yet overlooked. Having access to the internet at home means it will be easier for residents to apply for jobs online, work remotely, and access safety net benefits. Most importantly, it allows children to receive a full education during this pandemic. With this partnership, some of the most vulnerable members of our population will gain access to the internet, bringing us one step closer to digital equity for all New Yorkers.
As we face yet another potential wave of COVID, it is clear that digital equity must be the goal in order to ensure that all New Yorkers can be successful. Employment opportunities, safety net access, and education, will increasingly become dependent on having internet access. Without stable broadband access, the gap between rich and poor widens, and the circle of poverty will continue for the next generation of children of color. Thanks to the efforts of NYC Mesh and other community-run and community-first organizations who have stepped up to tackle this challenge like Silicon Harlem or The Point, we are closer to bringing digital equity to the City of New York and ensuring that no child receives a lesser education, because of their parents’ inability to pay a monthly internet bill.
Terique Boyce is an organizer with NYC Mesh and resident of NYCHA housing. He works towards achieving greater representation of people of color in the tech industry and bridging the digital divide in NYC.