Wired City

New York Needs to Up Its Broadband Game ASAP

How else are we supposed to watch nine hours of HBOGO unmolested?
Mayor Bloomberg addresses the crowd at yesterday's presser. (Photo: Celeste Sloman, New York Observer)

Mayor Bloomberg addresses the crowd at yesterday’s presser. (Photo: Celeste Sloman, New York Observer)

The word “broadband” is enough to send the layperson to sleep. But even the least tech-savvy New Yorker can often be heard asking “How do we not have free WiFi in the city yet?”

And for fast-growing tech startups, it’s an issue of the utmost importance.

“Broadband quality is one of the first questions any of our ERA alumni companies ask when looking for office space,” explained Jonathan Axelrod, managing director of the Entrepreneurs Roundtable Accelerator. Slow, pricey broadband could be a drag on the city’s potential as a tech hub. It’s commonly cited as an area for improvement in reports on the local tech industry, and made for a popular talking point with politicians schmoozing techie crowds.

The good news is, there’s work being done behind the scenes to improve matters. Yesterday, for instance, a presser was held in Brooklyn wherein Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the Observer‘s own publisher, Jared Kushner, talked broadband. They outlined initiatives they believe will spread WiFi and broadband access more evenly across Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens–which means free Internet in the streets. (Netflix on a park bench!)

They also announced WiredNYC, an new effort headed up by Mr. Kushner, meant to evaluate and quantify the broadband connectivity of New York’s office buildings, then make that info public. In a city that makes its restaurants post letter grades for cleanliness, the idea is to provide some sort of transparent standard to which buildings can aspire. As Mr. Kushner stated at the press conference, “What LEED certification did for a building’s environmental friendliness, WiredNYC will do for a building’s connectivity.”

Mayor Michael Bloomberg looks on as NYO Publisher Jared Kushner speaks at yesterday's presser. (Photo: Celeste Sloman, New York Observer)

Mayor Michael Bloomberg looks on as NYO Publisher Jared Kushner speaks at yesterday’s presser. (Photo: Celeste Sloman, New York Observer)

We chatted with Arie Barendrecht, WiredNYC’s director, post-presser yesterday. He told us via email that broadband “is not just ‘nice to have’ anymore–the operations of many businesses (not just tech startups) fundamentally rely on the speed and quality of the Internet in order for employees to be productive.”

“If our entrepreneurs cannot get access to [higher] speeds in NYC, they will find it elsewhere,” he says. And he’s not just talking about Silicon Valley, either. Google Fiber–which is basically the Hyperloop of Internet connections–is available in Kansas City, and cities like Chattanooga, Tenn., and Lafayette, La., are seeing mixed success with high-speed municipal fiber broadband. Think about that the next time your Netflix craps out and try not to throw your computer into a wall.

For the most part, Mr. Barendrecht says, we in the U.S. are paying too much for not-that-great Internet–unless you’re in a Class A office, in which case you can pay too much for pretty good Internet. Studies show that South Korea and Switzerland “are very far ahead of the U.S. when it comes to high-speed broadband adoption, average Internet speeds, and cost,” he says, which begs the question, what the hell are we waiting for?

Well, our buildings are pretty old, so the utility hook-ups aren’t compatible with the good Internet. Also, installing fiber for the best connection possible requires permits to shut down and dig in the streets, but Mr. Barendrecht says the Bloomberg Administration is trying to streamline the permitting process and pilot a micro-trenching program to make digging in the streets less invasive, so there’s that.

Those “last mile challenges” create thorny issues that will require a lot of work to resolve. What WiredNYC wants to do in the meantime is introduce a little more transparency into what we’ve already got. Plus, knowing which buildings are good candidates for fiber would be a good step, and landlords “can be more proactive about the way they manage and upgrade broadband in their buildings,” Mr. Barendrecht says. Sadly the thought of our landlord being productive about such a thing makes us say, “Hahahahaha yeah right,” but the real estate community’s attention to this issue is crucial, he says.

WiredNYC’s goal is to have 500 buildings sharing info with their tenants about Internet connectivity, making it easier for tech companies to pick the best offices. That’ll take about two years, according to Mr. Barendrecht. “It’s great to see the city making a building’s broadband quality more transparent,” Mr. Axelrod said approvingly of the effort.

He admits, though, there’s only so much that can do: “Getting the whole city connected is a different story,” Mr. Barendrecht says. “It really depends on the next administration and how much of a priority they place on the city’s technology infrastructure.”

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[Correction: In a previous version of this story, the final quote was mistakenly attributed to Mr. Axelrod rather than Mr. Barendrecht.]

Follow Molly Mulshine on Twitter or via RSS. mmulshine@observer.com