When Maya Wiley went to work as Mayor Bill de Blasio’s legal counsel shortly after he took office in 2014, he asked her to figure out how to bridge the digital divide by bringing broadband to low-income neighborhoods.
“I thought, ‘Oh, s—t!’ I said we needed it. I didn’t know how to get it,” Wiley recalled on the Technopolis podcast posted in June 2019.
The civil rights attorney had captured de Blasio’s attention after she wrote a piece in The Nation urging him to “build more community broadband” in an effort to forge “stronger, fairer and more resilient communities.”
But nearly eight years later, during a pandemic that has moved much of work and school online, the de Blasio administration is still struggling to make that a reality. City officials say they are now “actively reviewing proposals” from firms that responded to a highly anticipated request for proposals the mayor’s office issued in March. The city has set aside $157 million for the first portion of its ballyhooed Internet Master Plan.
Meanwhile, some 1.5 million New Yorkers, including many living in public housing, lack broadband access or mobile internet connection, according to city estimates.
“We’ve been let down too long,” said Danny Barber, chairperson of Citywide Council of Presidents, NYCHA’s tenant leadership panel.
“There are thousands of homes where kids are failing or have failed thus far with schooling due to lack of accessibility,” added Barber, who has endorsed Ray McGuire
Now Wiley is running for her old boss’ job, looking to both distance herself from him and tout herself as the candidate primed to deliver on the progressive promises of a mayor who critics say failed on his pledge to rewrite “a tale of two cities.”
Her record as de Blasio’s counsel during his ethics flaps and as his appointee to head the Civilian Complaint Review Board have drawn far more attention than her role as the would-be bridger of the digital divide.
Wiley has long blamed de Blasio and her multiple predecessors for failing to deliver WiFi for the masses. “It’s continuously been delayed due to a lack of urgency, vision and attention,” she told THE CITY in a statement in January.
Julia Savel, a spokesperson for Wiley’s campaign, declined multiple opportunities to offer additional comment.
An examination of Wiley’s role in the LinkNYC kiosk deal that aimed to connect many New Yorkers reveals a more complex accounting of why legions have been left in the digital dust.
The lack of broadband connectivity was highlighted by the pandemic when low-income New Yorkers struggled to get online to do everything from attend school classes to schedule telehealth medical appointments to work remotely.
Some were even seen sitting outside the 207 closed libraries that continued to boost free Wi-Fi outside.
“The political capital behind the idea that we needed to get broadband networks everywhere, and get everyone on them, increased dramatically in March of 2020,” said Blair Levin, who handled broadband expansion at the Federal Communications Commission during the Obama administration.
“COVID demonstrated painfully to people like me how important it was to make sure that there were networks everywhere and everyone was on them,” he added.
Wiley prides herself for launching free internet access to residents at the NYCHA Queensbridge Houses, the largest public housing complex in the nation with more than 6,000 people, many of whom are Black and Hispanic.
In her digital role for the de Blasio administration, she also “helped negotiate and supported the launch of the LinkNYC franchise,” according to the bio at The New School, where she teaches.
The plan was to convert landline pay phone locations into sleek kiosks with Wi-Fi hotspots, phone capabilities and a tablet touchscreen that could connect users to city services, such as the information and complaint hotline 311. The kiosks would be paid for by revenue from advertisements while bringing in $500 million for the city over the span of the agreement, which was initially 12 years.
In 2014, a consortium of private companies called CityBridge signed a franchise agreement under which it promised to install 7,500 operational kiosks within a decade. Two years later, Wiley celebrated the arrival of the first kiosks with a tweet declaring de Blasio the “best boss.”
The original deal included an initial 500 kiosks that wouldn’t have offered advertising, but would have provided some internet service for digital deserts. The number of those kiosks would have eventually expanded to 1,500.
“A targeted phase-in schedule provides for an equitable distribution of the new structures across the five boroughs within four years,” de Blasio’s office trumpeted at the time.
But that part of the deal was pulled because, City Hall later said, those kiosks were incompatible with the LinkNYC system.