New York Project Looks to Close the Digital Divide with Free Solar-Powered Wifi

Solar panels are being used to provide utility savings that can be passed on to tenants in the form of free wifi.

As the world becomes more digital, there is the danger of leaving some behind. Even in the world's advanced metropolises, there are communities which lack internet access. A solar project wants to change that.

Autor*in Mark Newton, 07.19.21

Translation Mark Newton:

For many, reliable internet access is now largely taken for granted. The meteoric rise of the smartphone also means people, companies and government agencies now expect the population to be online at practically every given moment.

Although this online revolution has provided many benefits and conveniences, its impact has not been felt equally both within, and between, nations. For example, even in New York, there are still communities which lack high speed internet connections – or any internet connection at all. To help rectify this issue, a local urban housing agency has teamed up with a green bank and education centre to provide free solar-powered wifi.

The Workforce Housing Group’s initiative is designed to introduce high-speed internet to three New York City neighbourhoods – Crown Heights, East New York and Bedford-Stuyvesant. All three are located within Brooklyn’s predominantly black areas, where internet access is usually lower. For example, of households in these three neighbourhoods, 14 percent, 15.3 percent and 20.6 percent respectively lack non-mobile connectivity.

In conjunction with the green energy education centre, Solar One, the scheme involves installing solar panels on the roofs of 18 buildings managed by the housing group. These panels, partially funded by the NY Green Bank, aim to provide enough renewable energy to offset some of the operating costs of the buildings. The saved cash will then be used to provide free wifi and broadband for 22 buildings for four years, as well as pay off the loans financing the project. Not only will this provide a vital service to those without internet access, it will also provide savings to those households who already have it.

It is hoped that the success of the project will create an easily replicable template which can be used elsewhere in the city. Currently, around one third of households lack reliable high speed internet access, with those households largely existing within New York’s historically black or migrant districts. For example, although high speed internet is pervasive across much of Manhattan, in the predominantly black and hispanic districts of South and East Harlem, 25.8 percent of households lack internet access. In the largely asian neighbourhood of the Lower East Side, the figure is 23 percent.

Bridging the Digital Divide

For many across the globe, but especially in the West, access to reliable high speed internet is essential to take full advantage of the types of services and commercial opportunities that are now available. This development has become only more important with the coronavirus pandemic and the onset of lockdowns, remote working and remote learning. When many of New York’s schools introduced remote learning, up to 750,000 students lived in homes without reliable internet access, despite being issued ipads and other devices.

The issue of the digital divide is further compounded by a move towards e-Governance, e-Commerce and e-Banking – all of which became more essential during the coronavirus pandemic. Although all three provide significant advantages in terms of cost, reduced waiting times, and convenience, they also often require up-to-date smart phone technology and both practical and digital literacy skills. As a result, uptake of digital services is lower amongst the elderly, unemployed, less-educated, non-English speaking and disabled citizens, as well as by smaller businesses.

Research has suggested that although digital inclusivity is increasing globally – with the exception of Sudan – there are large discrepancies between nations. Those which perform best, such as Singapore and Denmark often feature free or low-cost public wifi, high GDP per capita, strong English skills and robust digital skill training programmes. Currently, around 40 percent of the world’s population does not have the opportunity to learn basic computer skills.

Although some of these factors require long-term and far-reaching solutions, others such as providing affordable internet and digital training are more immediately feasible. Hopefully, projects such as those being carried out in Brooklyn can be replicated elsewhere and help tighten the digital divide within, and across, the globe.

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