New York City Council Gets on the High Tech Road

By Maurice Pinzon
The City Council has its first true techno-policy guru,
West Side Councilmember Gale Brewer. Ms. Brewer has even acquired the nickname
“The Email Queen”, because of her frequent use of email to communicate
with colleagues and the public. Ms. Brewer said she personally compiles and
maintains an email list that has 7,000 contacts.

When Gale Brewer covered City Council meetings for Public Advocate Mark Green,
she had the only laptop in the Council Chambers. This past Tuesday, as Chair
of the City Council’s Select Committee on Technology in Government, Ms.
Brewer entered a newly completed City Council conference room. The room was
outfitted with 2 overhead projectors and screens for power-point presentations,
sleek microphones. “This is the first time there have been 3 laptop computers
in a council meeting,” she exclaimed shortly after starting the hearing.
The Council was deploying technology to examine New York City’s technology
policy.

In the hearing Councilmember Brewer delineated the issue of broadband policy
confronting New York City. Broadband bandwidth, she explained, is available
in two high-speed service types: DSL, Cable and T1, and fiber optic services.
Fiber optics can carry significantly higher quantities of data, known as bandwidth.
This data includes email, website traffic, but increasingly will contain video,
voice and new information technologies, requiring even higher bandwidth capacity.
How much of this fiber optic capacity is available to household consumers and
businesses throughout New York City will be determined by the investment and
policy decisions in both the private and public sectors in the coming years.
These decisions will have an impact on the cost, equity and the competitive
nature of information services. The new digital divide, said one speaker, would
be between those who have the older type of broadband services and those with
high capacity fiber optic broadband.

Currently, fiber optic technology is concentrated in commercial buildings in
Manhattan, mostly below 59th Street. According to a briefing paper prepared
for the hearing, with a total number of 3,385 fiber-optic wired buildings in
the 5 boroughs, Manhattan has 87% of the fiber optic wired buildings; Brooklyn,
6.1%; Bronx, 4.1%; Queens, 1.6%; and Staten Island, 1.2%.

Although there are large fiber optic “highways” running outside
Manhattan, there are no cost effective ways to build a system of feeder “roads”
that will take the fiber optic wiring to businesses and homes. In addition,
telecom companies now in an economic tailspin, have little capital to invest
in building any infrastructure. Therefore, businesses in the boroughs outside
Manhattan, and household customers throughout the City, are effectively dependent
on Verizon and Time-Warner for the broadband service. This means their only
choice is cable, DSL and to a lesser extent, T1 service.

According to Council Member Brewer, and others who spoke before the committee,
there is a developing consensus that fiber optic connectivity will be an essential
economic development tool for most businesses, no matter what their size.

Council member Brewer seemingly laid down a marker for the private sector companies
with her first speaker, Bill St. Arnaud, who is Senior Director of Advanced
Networks for CANARIE Inc., Canada’s Advanced Internet Development Organization.
Mr. St. Arnaud outlined how Canada has used a “Condo Model”, which
he explained was a group of customers committing to buy the fiber optic services
as an incentive for companies to run fiber optic cable to their locations. According
to Mr. St Arnaud, Canadian municipalities have created a more affordable system
with this commitment from users. This is comparable, he explained, to buyers
purchasing condo apartments at a discount before they are actually built.

In addition, municipalities in Canada have intervened in the market, leveraging
their telecom purchasing power by awarding contracts to a consortium of service
providers that agree to run fiber optics throughout the city. The municipality
is aggressive in providing incentives for the build out in infrastructure, while
the private companies provide the fiber optic broadband service to customers.

This is in sharp contrast to the near monopolistic system of franchises in
New York City. Verizon and Time-Warner’s representatives testifying at
the hearing said they were already meeting the needs of customers and cited
awards from regulatory groups and publications to argue their customers were
satisfied. The Canadian model they said was not feasible for New York. Verizon’s
representative, Mr. McLaughlin said that in New York there are high labor costs
and municipal red tape that prevent a further cost effective expansion of fiber
optics service. Verizon’s speakers indicated that the company was already providing
various broadband services that addressed business needs.

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