Posted on 15 April 2011.
William Guinyard, 25, doesn't have Internet access at home, so he must use the computers at a local library to search for jobs and apartments. Photo by: April Warren
By April Warren and Michelle Bialeck
The Bronx may not win first place as the most wired borough in New York City, but its digital landscape tends to mirror its residents – diverse, tough and determined not to be ignored.
While official data quantifying Internet access and usage in the Bronx is limited, BronkInk.org has created a patchwork of information for our readers to better understand how Bronxites use the Web.
In 2006, New York City set out to obtain a measurement of the digital topography of the region. In 2009, the city presented that report to the federal government in the hope of obtaining stimulus money through the Recovery Act to expand broadband services.
But instead, the study conducted by the city painted a surprising picture. Broadband, it turned out, is accessible in most areas of the city, but whether New Yorkers are actually using it was the bigger question.
The study concluded that every city neighborhood does have access to broadband, with 89 percent of households able to connect to at least two Internet providers. It also found that in 2006, New York’s broadband adoption rate stood at 52 percent – five points higher than the national average.
But other findings showed a 28 percent gap between access and actual broadband use between low and moderate-income households and high-income households. Upper West Side Councilwoman Gail Brewer argues that this is because low-income families can’t always afford computers or the cost of broadband service and don’t always possess computer literacy skills. Some New Yorkers don’t fully understand the value of the Internet either, according to Brewer.
“You can pay the rent, or you could pay the cost of Internet,” said Brewer, who oversees the city’s Broadband Advisory Committee.
William Guinyard, 25, a Morris Park resident who can often be found typing away at the New York Public Library in Clason’s Point, is typical of many Bronx Internet users. He doesn’t have access to the Internet or a computer at home. “Half of my friends have computers at home, but they don’t have the WiFi coming in,” he said as he searched for music videos on YouTube. He also uses the library’s computers to hunt for a job and an apartment.
To better understand how Bronxites and other city residents used the Internet, Brewer began holding Town Hall meetings in the five boroughs to start a dialogue about resident’s Internet needs. The first meeting was held in the Bronx in 2005. The councilwoman referred to the Bronx as the “most challenging,” echoing some of the struggles cited in the Broadband study. The committee will soon report its findings to the city, but the entity has found that cost and a lack of training are two factors that play a role in how Bronx residents access the Internet.
“One, it’s expensive,” said Brewer of installing and maintaining Internet in homes. “Two is, even when sometimes you get the cost down…for low income families, there’s training – you have to have a reason to use it. The third thing we learned for those who don’t have it at home, we need CTC’s, computer training centers.”
Recent data from the Federal Communications Commission underscores those conclusions. The federal agency’s statistics depict each county’s broadband adoption rating on a scale of one through five; Bronx County ranks a three.
“The three is a broadband adoption rating, and means that 40 to 60 percent of households in the county have access to broadband speeds above 768 kilobits per second,” said Mark Wigfield, a spokesman for the Federal Communications Commission. Brooklyn and Queens also ranked a three, while Manhattan ranked a four and Long Island a five, meaning than 80 percent of the population have access to broadband.
The study showed that paying for high-speed broadband access corresponds directly with household income.
“Broadband adoption tends to be lower in low-income communities,” Wigfield said. Councilwoman Brewer echoes his point. “Unless you have support for how to use it, people don’t see it as needed,” she said.
One suggestion her committee will make to the City Council will be to increase the amount of training centers where residents can go to learn how to use their computer and troubleshoot hardware or software problems.
In other words, for many urban dwellers, the problem isn’t finding a potential access point to the Web, the problem is first finding the funds and making those who don’t know it learn about and want to access the Web. According to the Broadband study, “Facts suggest across the United States, urban areas generally suffer more acutely from a demand-side problem of adoption, rather than a supply-side of deployment.”
But Internet access and reliability in the area has been improving in past years. Cablevision is now in all parts of the borough with wireless Internet available in many areas. While Verizon’s underground copper network is capable of providing high speed internet and is “virtually ubiquitous” in all parts of the Bronx, according to spokesman John Bonomo, Verizon FiOS is rapidly expanding and will bring fiber optics to all parts of the borough by 2014. Currently, FiOS is not available in the North Bronx from Riverdale down through Highbridge. Time Warner Cable does not provide Internet to the Bronx. Smaller providers include Speakasy Business Broadband, J System and NetZero.
While some Bronx residents live in areas where they have trouble connecting their households to the Internet, it does not mean they don’t have access. Smart phones do more than just make calls. “Remember that many people rely on wireless Internet through Verizon Wireless and other mobile companies,” Bonomo said. “These wireless devices or other wireless products can also act to provide Internet access to the home.”
A 2004 report conducted by the Center For an Urban Future, a New York City-based think tank, looked at Broadband service throughout the city and, pointed to Hunts Point as an area where service was limited. It isn’t any longer.
The area is home to the largest meat and produce markets on the East Coast and boasts more than 20,000 employees, many of whom need Internet access to run their businesses. According to the 2004 Urban Future study, many of the businesses were then too far from Verizon’s central office to be connected to DSL and Cablevision had only wired a small number of businesses.
But seven years later, Hunts Point has seen some changes with the expansion of Cablevision. “It’s improved quite a bit,” said local businessman Brian Kenny, of Internet service in the area. Kenny is the operations manager for Hunts Point Cooperative Market that includes 50 meat wholesale companies.
According to Kenny, what used to be slow and unreliable Internet access in the area changed about three years ago. “I can’t say that we have that much of an issue any more,” Kenny said.
For those that don’t have access to a computer, the Bronx’s public libraries continue to fill in the gaps.
Almost every day, library web surfer William Guinyard seeks out his favorite spot on a circular table, away from the massive row of computers, in the well-lit Clason’s Point library. “The Internet here is perfect,” he says. “It’s quick; it picks up more than other libraries.” Out of work, he comes to the Clason’s Point library to hunt for jobs and to listen to music because he doesn’t have access to the Internet at home and because, in his opinion, that particular branch is the least crowded and has the best service, which makes listening to music easier. For him, it’s a kind of jewel in the popular Bronx library system.
Librarians seem to agree that the Internet quality is adequate in most libraries, freezing at times, but still markedly quicker than the days of dial-up. For those, like Guinyard, who need to use the Internet and don’t have it at home, “adequate” is better than nothing. And some libraries are slightly quicker than others.
Olinda Martinez, 45, lives on Stratford Avenue, just one block over from Clason’s Point Library. She uses the Library’s Internet frequently to gather information about different schools for her 7-year-old son and to e-mail her family abroad. “My son is in PS 196 now, but I want to find a better school for him,” she says in Spanish. “I don’t have a computer now, but when he is older, I will get one.”
Music lovers and concerned parents aren’t the only ones who take advantage of the library system. “We also get a lot of people who are out of work,” explained Grace Tellez-Cardona, senior librarian at Morris Park Branch. Since the recession hit, she has noticed a greater number of people looking for jobs or going to government sites like those with information about unemployment benefits, even using the computer’s printer to print out resumes for work interviews.
At the same time though, Tellez-Cardona maintained, ”there is really a variety of people.” She sees students researching papers, occasional Facebook surfers and even some people who seem to always be there. She recalled one “regular” she sees almost every day. “We have one gentleman in his 50′s. He’s a writer,” she said. “The biggest Internet users are the adult population.”
Tellez-Cardona added that many librarygoers also bring their own laptops and log onto the library’s Internet service.
Tellez-Cardona and Jean Harripersaud, head of the Adult Center at Bronx Library Center, the hub of the Bronx library system, also mentioned the popularity of the system’s computer literacy programs. At Bronx Library Center, for example, classes are offered in English and Spanish and there’s a waiting list of five people for a class of 14. At Morris Point, Tellez-Cardona predominantly sees seniors at classes. “They come here, and they say, ‘I have a computer and I am tired of my grandson or nephew telling me how to use it,’” she said.
Where Bronx kids are concerned, access to the Internet hasn’t always come as easily. In Bronx public schools, Internet quality has increased over the past several years, but access is still limited. “It is better than it has been, it’s moderately good,” said Chris Dowlin, the librarian at Bronx Science. “It was getting backed up.” He explained that students can only use the Internet for research, to comb through databases, to launch Google searches, and to stream videos that are specifically tailored to classes they are taking. “There would be more usage, if students had more access,” he said. Inside the classroom, the Internet is limited to about five minutes per lesson; teachers use the outlet mainly to spur discussion.
The Internet may not be the most dependable or accessible resource in the borough, but when Bronxites find a good connection, they stick with it. Just like William Guinyard. He spends many late mornings in the library computer lab navigating to and from his job- search websites. His dream job: something in construction. “I look for jobs, look for apartments, I look for music, watch wrestling,” said Guinyard, his hands still on the keyboard. He put his headphones on and got back to work.
Click on other stories in this package to learn more about how Bronxites are connecting to the world in the Digital Age.