IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

NYC Tackles Digital Divide With New Free Internet Program

Through its new consolidated Office of Technology and Innovation, NYC is working to expand connectivity access through various technology-related initiatives, including its most recent advancement: Big Apple Connect.

New York City panorama skyline at sunrise. Manhattan office buildings / skysrcapers at the morning. New York City panoramatic shot.
New York City’s latest digital equity program, Big Apple Connect, aims to offer immediate results connecting residents in need to free high-speed Internet as part of the city’s larger quest of closing the digital divide.

As the digital inclusion movement continues to expand nationwide, communities in urban areas are still facing inequities. The city of New York announced the NYC Internet Master Plan in January 2020. However, after it put the plan on hold in May 2022, it introduced a new plan to help residents now: Big Apple Connect.

The new program, officially launched citywide Sept. 19, aims to provide high-speed Internet access and basic cable to people living in more than 200 New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) developments by the end of 2023. The announcement follows a pilot program that took place at eight public housing developments in the city. NYCHA residents will not be billed for service.

Big Apple Connect is now already bringing high-speed Internet to residents in more than 120 NYCHA developments.

The program was announced by Mayor Eric Adams and CTO Matt Fraser. As Fraser explained it in a written response to Government Technology, the consolidated Office of Technology and Innovation that was created in January 2022 has been an effective way to streamline technology operations to better provide services for both residents and visitors. As he stated, this approach applies to projects ranging from economic development initiatives to those expanding broadband access.

Fraser acknowledged broadband access is critical to enabling participation in the economy, education, health care and other aspects of society. Connectivity is considered a necessity “akin to utilities such as hot water and heat.” This was how the city determined Big Apple Connect was the next logical step for broadband expansion.

“The Adams administration evaluated the urgent need of historically underserved NYCHA residents and subsequently engaged with our city’s legacy cable franchisees to ensure the largest number of people would have access to free high-speed Internet as soon as possible,” Fraser stated.

As he explained, those living in public housing, specifically students, fell behind during the pandemic because the pre-World War II buildings that make up the city’s public housing offered limited wireless signal access. For this reason, students who were sent home from school with devices to keep them connected to their education were not necessarily able to use them. This signal issue also heightened feelings of isolation for city residents, which can impact both mental and physical health.

“Those of us who work in government often ask what the consequences will be if we take on a big project,” Fraser said. “But we don’t often stop to consider the consequences for people if we don’t act … so I’d urge government officials in other cities working on other similar programs to strongly consider the consequences of inaction for people who need those services the most.”

According to Fraser, one of the ways that this program works to center equity is by focusing on people living in NYCHA developments, as these developments house a wide range of demographics within the city’s population — spanning from youth to seniors, and from lifelong residents to immigrant families.

The city’s administration is also working to support the federal Affordable Connectivity Program, which is backed by the state. This program can be applied by those residents participating in Big Apple Connect to apply the support to their mobile phone service costs.

This isn't the city’s only investment into digital activity. For example, it launched Link5G this summer to help expand coverage for communities that are considered to be “digital deserts.”

"These connectivity projects reflect this administration’s action-oriented approach to meet the digital needs of our lower-income communities, immigrant communities and communities of color," he stated.

While increasing access to the Internet is crucial, Fraser said it's just the start for the city. He underlines the city’s commitment to providing both devices and digital skills training to people in the city.
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.