Bronx BP: Wi-Fi Hotspots Should Be Solar-Powered

Bronx BP: Wi-Fi Hotspots Should Be Solar-Powered

Bronx BP: Wi-Fi Hotspots Should Be Solar-Powered
November 24, 2014

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's proposed resurrection of the New York’s moribund payphones, in which existing installations would be converted into free Wi-Fi hotspots, has been widely praised as a cost-effective move that would modernize sidewalk and telecom infrastructure while promoting digital inclusion, even as the process by which the city selected a partner to run the new network elicited the ire of elected officials.

But the winning design for the high-speed hubs, announced on Nov. 17, is drawing the scrutiny of Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.

In a 12-page report, titled “Policy Considerations and Recommendations for New York City PPT to Wi-Fi Conversion,” the Office of Bronx Borough President Diaz argues that “Hurricane Sandy has taught us that all major infrastructure investments need to be implemented in a manner that incorporates sustainability and resiliency for major emergencies.”

The report recommends that the spiffed-up Internet hubs incorporate solar panels and other design modifications to eliminate the network’s reliance on the utility company Con Edison.

Borough presidents share a vote on the Franchise and Concession Review Committee (FCRC), which has to approve the agreement with CityBridge, the winning bidder.

In its April 30 request for proposals (RFP), The Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) “encouraged” respondents to “include the use of independent power sources, such as solar energy, as an alternative to connecting by underground conduit to the local utility.”

A few months later, de Blasio pledged to “increase solar and renewable energy deployment on City assets,” part of a larger commitment by the administration to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent over 2005 levels by 2050.

According to DoITT, the communications structures—which will be built and maintained by CityBridge, a six-company consortium that includes Titan, the largest current payphone franchisee—will work at higher temperatures (requiring less cooling) and incorporate efficient LED technologies. Agency officials said that no feasible RFP response incorporating solar power was submitted.

“We were told they received just one response that had solar, and it makes you question whether or not the RFP was marketed appropriately,” Ray Sanchez, counsel and director of policy at the Bronx Borough President’s Office, said. “In my research I found so many different ways in which solar and Wi-Fi are being combined.”

The Bronx borough president’s report includes a review of existing Wi-Fi networks powered by solar technology. Notice of the April RFP was posted in The City Record and promoted via a mayoral press release accompanied by a fact sheet.

Photovoltaic panels have been widely integrated into the city’s sidewalk infrastructure since 2009, in the pay-and-display parking meters known as “Muni-Meters.”

Citing five-day outages caused by Superstorm Sandy, the borough president’s report also criticizes the backup power capability of the proposed hotspots, whose batteries are only guaranteed to function for “at least 24 hours in the event of loss of commercial power.”

The city’s underused payphone network, which operates independently of the commercial power grid, has experienced fleeting resurgences of relevance in times of citywide mayhem—most notably the Sept. 11 attacks, the 2003 blackout and Superstorm Sandy.

The CityBridge franchise, DoITT claims, will be the first telecom franchise to incorporate a fiber optic network designed to minimize outages as a result of flooding.

According to the proposed agreement, communications points would be utilized to disseminate public service information during citywide emergencies.

The doubts raised in the borough president’s report are just the latest surrounding the implementation of LinkNYC, as the Wi-Fi conversion initiative has been dubbed. In an Aug. 13 letter to the mayor, Public Advocate Letitia James, expressing a concern shared by many City Council members, argued that allowing “one operator to facilitate the installation and maintenance of these communications points” would create a monopoly, in violation of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

DoITT has repeatedly stressed that the proposed 15-year contract with CityBridge is “non-exclusive,” and additional solicitations could be issued down the road.

According to DoITT, the inclusion of multiple franchisees among sidewalk providers did nothing to prevent a gradual decline in service quality, as no single company had sufficient incentive to invest in innovation, quality assurance or network ubiquity. The proposed agreement with CityBridge mandates technology upgrades in its sixth and 10th years.

That DoITT opted to act pursuant to two already existing authorizing resolutions—AR 2039 and AR 191, which apply to payphone and wireless franchises, respectively—rather than go to the City Council for a new resolution applicable to this particular franchise, has rankled many council members.

“We oppose DoITT’s avoidance of the Council’s role in this franchise process by relying on ARs intended for other purposes,” wrote Councilman Mark Weprin, in a letter to the mayor co-signed by 27 of his colleagues. “This usurping of the Council’s role risks setting a dangerous precedent whereby the public loses its right to contribute to the framing of the public policy underlying RFPs.”

Authorizing Resolution 2039 expires on Dec. 21. The FCRC vote on the CityBridge franchise is scheduled for Dec. 10.

In its report, the Bronx Borough President’s Office warns: “The contract approval should not be rushed because of the impending expiration of the ARs.”  

If the proposed agreement is not approved prior to the expiration of AR 2309, DoITT could request a new authorizing resolution from the Council.

The FCRC is comprised of six voting members, of which two represent the mayor and another two the Law Department and Office of Management and Budget. Of the remaining two votes, one represents the New York City Comptroller’s Office and the five borough presidents share the other.

Franchises need five votes to win approval. The mayoral press release announcing the CityBridge agreement included statements from three borough presidents—Eric Adams (Brooklyn), Gale Brewer (Manhattan), and James Oddo (Staten Island)—praising LinkNYC.

The city comptroller’s office declined to comment on the CityBridge contract.

Intended to enhance digital inclusion, LinkNYC is seen by some supporters as a piecemeal step towards universal broadband.

According to the de Blasio administration, LinkNYC will be funded entirely through advertising revenue, and in its first 12 years could generate a return of more than $500 million for the city.

There are some 7,000 remaining payphones in New York, down from more than 35,000 fifteen years ago. The agreement with CityBridge provides for the creation of up to 10,000 total “links.” Each link will provide a gigabite speed Wi-Fi as well as free nationwide phone calls, wayfinding and other informational services, and mobile device charging.

“There are a lot of things we like in the RFP winner, but we felt [sustainability and resiliency] was an important part of the conversation not being raised,” Ray Sanchez said. “Let’s go the full hundred yards, not just 80 percent of the way.”

Gabe Ponce de León
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