The story of municipal projects to bring public WiFi to the underprivileged and impoverished has been one of varied success.
Some ambitious attempts at creating city-wide internet access zones, like the one Philadelphia made in 2004, according to the New York Times, have quickly turned sour.
Meanwhile, Digital India, an even more ambitious project championed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has enjoyed plenty of success, bringing internet access and cloud sharing to parts of the country where people had never even seen a webpage, as First Post reports.
And earlier this month, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that his administration plans to spend $70 million on efforts to give free internet access to all New Yorkers, according to Fast Company. This makes sense, as NYC has already had some success introducing smaller hotspots in a handful of areas, making access convenient for consumers and manageable for administrators.
On the one hand, the initiative is a continuation of the previous mayor Michael Bloomberg’s attempts to court the tech industry, attempts that have put New York behind only San Francisco on the list of cities deemed most hospitable to tech startups while bringing in millions of dollars in investment and revenue.
On the other hand, the idea also smacks of the kind of populism that put de Blasio in office.
By bringing WiFi and the internet to the swaths of New York’s population that can’t afford it, the mayor is not only democratizing what’s becoming more and more of an essential resource, but expanding the scope of the tech sector’s economic impact.
The Limits of Tech-Based Prosperity
It’s well-known that the startup economy has brought billions of dollars to cities like San Francisco, which, thanks to Google, has had WiFi available in many of its parks and playgrounds for some months now, as Time reports. But it turns out that the impact of those billions in revenue is limited to a fairly narrow slice of the population.
As Nishant Bhajaria writes in an excellent piece for LinkedIn Pulse, there are a few simple reasons that the tech boom hasn’t contributed to any large-scale economic growth.
The first is the simple fact that technology’s purpose is to automate to the point that more work can be done in less time and by fewer people. Modernizing your business model will greatly increase your company’s profit margins, but it doesn’t necessarily create jobs on its own.
Relatedly, you can’t reap the economic benefits earned by companies like Apple and Google if you don’t have the education, training, or income to become their employees or customers.
That’s why Google’s developments in Silicon Valley have led to gentrification rather than rehabilitation — they’re bringing in talented IT workers, rather than finding new ones, and they’re putting iPads in the hands of those who would otherwise just buy another computer. As Bhajaria puts it, the tech sector’s “power is deep, but its reach is very limited.”
But this is how the new mayor’s approach could affect his city’s economy in a different way than his predecessor’s. Mayor Michael Bloomberg was more focused on encouraging tech professionals to set up shop in the Big Apple than he was on the people already living in the city.
Mayor de Blasio might not be able to create a tech sector that benefits more people at any given time, but he can make it so that more and more New Yorkers have a better chance of turning into viable employees or consumers of tech.
If part of what limits the tech sector’s economic reach is interest and education in technology, the very first step of encouraging those things would be providing internet access to the 22% of the city’s population that doesn’t have it.
This way, de Blasio makes tech more populist without harming its essential capitalism — only some people can be made wealthy by it, but those people are be qualified based on their merit rather than their economic standing.