from the more-of-the-same dept
In 2014, NYC officials decided to replace the city’s dated pay phones with “information kiosks” providing free public Wi-Fi, phone calls, device charging, and a tablet for access to city services, maps and directions. The kiosks were to be funded by “context-aware” ads based on a variety of data collected from kiosk users and NYC residents just passing by.
It… didn’t go well.
Within a few years, reports emerged that the company hired to deploy the kiosks (CityBridge) had only deployed 1,900 of an originally promised 7,000 kiosks. And the kiosks they had deployed were being used to watch porn. The program has also been long criticized for over-collecting user data and being completely non-transparent about what data was being collected or who access was sold to.
By 2020 CityBridge still owed the city $75 million. In 2021, an audit by New York State’s Comptroller found LinkNYC failed completely to meet its deployment goals, failed to adequately maintain existing kiosks, failed to turn on many already deployed kiosks, and had fallen well short of projected ad revenues.
It’s now 2023, and the ACLU of New York says that the lion’s share of the dodgy, privacy-violating tracking undertaken by the kiosk system still hasn’t been meaningfully addressed. And the city and its partners still refuse to provide full transparency on what’s being collected from passing city residents, whether they use the kiosks or not:
I wrote about this for Vice’s Motherboard last fall and absolutely nothing has really changed. The ACLU suggests that one alternative to this privacy-invading stopgap effort is for the city to actually deliver affordable fiber broadband to all city residents so they don’t need to huddle in the street in the first place:
“We need a publicly funded and controlled municipal broadband program that ensures every New Yorker, regardless of who they are or how much money they have, can enjoy high-speed, reliable Internet access. This program must put our privacy rights front-and-center so they aren’t traded away to the highest bidder.”
If you recall, NYC Mayor Eric Adams dismantled the city’s already underway plan to build a city-wide open access fiber network. That network would have boosted city broadband competition and driven down broadband access costs for all city residents, but it was unceremoniously dismantled, much to the surprise of folks that had been working on it for years.
The Adams administration insisted that the privacy-invasive undercooked kiosk system was good enough, likely because a city-owned municipal network would understandably upset regional mono/duopolies Verizon and regional cable giant Charter Communications (Spectrum).
As a substitute, the Adams administration also embraced a program dubbed Big Apple Connect. Under Big Apple Connect, the city decided to pay Charter $30 million a year for three years to give free broadband to around 400,000 folks living in public housing around the city.
Here’s the thing: this program will cost the city $90 million to temporarily fix a problem caused by the company it’s partnering with. That money will be thrown at a local monopoly directly responsible for high prices through its attacks on competition to temporarily lower costs. And the program only runs three years, after which those limited participants are out of luck and prices revert to their normal high.
In contrast, New York City’s original master plan called for spending $156 million to build an open access fiber network that all local ISPs could compete for business over. The resulting competition would have lowered broadband access costs for everyone in range. That $90 million being thrown at Charter could have gone a long way toward getting that network off the ground and inspiring other cities.
There’s a reason cities everywhere are building their own broadband networks, whether they’re municipal, cooperatives, or via the city-owned utility. It’s because data routinely show that treating broadband as an essential utility not only results in better, faster, and cheaper broadband, but also locally-owned networks are more easily to hold accountable for privacy and other competitive shenanigans.
This data-backed argument that broadband should probably be a publicly-owned utility understandably doesn’t make regional predatory telecom monopolies (or the endless federal, state, or local politicians that coddle them) particularly happy.