Who Is Responsible For The Digital Divide?

There probably aren’t many people left who aren’t online in one way or another, making internet access something of a universal necessity. The issue of access was elevated to woke status during the early days of the pandemic, when schools went virtual and pretended it  actually served to teach students so we didn’t feel badly about denying students an education as we went into lockdown.

But two things became clear. Many poor students lacked internet access at home, making it difficult if not impossible for them to attend virtual school. And when schools acted to provide emergency access to students, they either didn’t bother to take advantage of it or didn’t bother to zoom in anyway.

But since it’s not allowed to put the onus on parents for not providing wifi for their children, or children for logging on, the narrative has shifted from school access to vaccine ignorance, while the blame remains with the digital divide. A New York City councilman, Ben Kallos, has come up with a legislative fix for the problem that he wants to believe exists.

new bill introduced by New York City Council Member Ben Kallos would require the owners of buildings with 10 or more units to provide their tenants with free broadband internet service.

“We can finally end the digital divide and bridge the homework gap by making sure every apartment in New York City comes with Internet,” said Kallos in a statement. “You can’t get a vaccine if you can’t get online to schedule or even find an appointment, this pandemic has shown that the Internet is now a necessity.”

The law would make it the landlord’s responsibility to provide free internet access to tenants at the landlord’s expense. It could be wifi. It could be ethernet. But it would have to be.

When the New York state legislature put stricter limits on the kinds of maintenance and capital expenditures that the owners of rent-stabilized buildings (where allowable rent increases are capped by New York City’s Rent Guidelines Board) could pass onto tenants, critics warned that landlords would simply cut maintenance spending, leading to “shabbification.”

Landlord groups have said that building owners will respond similarly to an internet service mandate.

If this sounds a bit threatening, that’s because it is. Landlords have been about as good at messaging as police unions. But at a time when valid complaints persist about the lack of  housing at all, no less affordable housing, even ignoring the eviction moratorium where tenants who remained employed chose not to pay rent because they could, loading another expense on landlords does not seem to be the way to improve the situation.

But is it not true that Rule 34 dictates that everyone needs internet access? Sure. Like food, health care, legal representation and housing, internet access has become a necessity. But that doesn’t answer the question of how to make it happen or who should pay for it anymore than the other necessities of modern life.

Kallos’ bill does say that the city can provide grants, loans, tax abatements, and other incentives to building owners to cover the costs of internet installation, but it doesn’t include any funding for those incentives.

Owners of existing buildings would have until January 2026 to comply with the law if it is enacted.

The cost of internet access has to come from somewhere, and there is a tendency to pick a narrative, whether it’s fabulously rich landlords or undeserving scummy slumlords, upon which to dump the burden. Of course, one could also demand the companies that provide internet access to give it up for free to the poor, but somehow that didn’t make the cut. Or government could provide it as a public service like roads and toll booths, but Kallos chose to put the burden on landlords.

To be more serious, internet access is a necessity, and after buying iPhones for everyone in the household, there isn’t much money left for monthly access. We’ve managed to talk ourselves into a lot of things that people want, need and to which they feel entitled that presents economic conflicts that aren’t going to work.

But in New York City, everybody hates landlords even if they need places to live, and there is nothing more pervasive these days than removing all responsibility from those for whom empathy abounds and putting it on the hated people like landlords. It may not work, but at least we can all agree on who’s to blame.

10 thoughts on “Who Is Responsible For The Digital Divide?

  1. John Barleycorn

    So much “law” left fluttering like fall leaves, without a voice, not even a rustle with this here post.

    These here sociology-s impulses of yours, of late, must be some sort of unanticipated side effect of not saving enough copy of that newspaper you read everyday for the fireplace….

    Stay warm esteeeemed one or your brain is sure to freeze up before it cracks for good, falls out of your ears, and melts on the kitchen floor.

    Which would be yet another slip hazard easily avoided. BTW, rumor has it fall prevention classes are gonna be free this year at the YMCA.

    P.S. When are we gonna get a primer post about the loonies down at city hall telling us we cant pay property tax via a check in the mail anymore? And will this civil matter turn into a criminal affair when the check they don’t cash is glued to a brick?

  2. rxc

    Maybe the legislature should also require landlords to install several large 4K TVs/monitors in each apartment so that the citizens can make effective use of the internet service.

    And a pony, too, for each of the children.

      1. Jim Cline

        You mean to say they can’t keep their real life pony in a virtual stable? They’re going to be awful dissapointed. Seems like a sure ticket for years of therapy.

  3. Ian C>

    There’s no ban on municipal broadband in NY, so what’s the excuse for that not being an option for cheaper and/or subsidized service for those in need? Rhetorical; I know damn well why that’s not on the table.

  4. ExpatNJ

    NYC is a RF (Radio Frequency) rich signal environment. I know. I hold 2 radio licenses from the FCC, and lived and worked there 45+yrs. It is implausible that anyone in NYC today could not access their own Internet connection anywhere within the five boroughs from a number, variety, and location, of sources.

    Is this bill to show renters that Kallos is “on the side of tenants”? Or, is Kallos a mere Patron-Minette who wants to take whatever he wants from Thénardiers?

    1. Ian C>

      To show he’s on side of the renters; and the Thénardiers are in vogue these days. I agree about the accessibility to net, but for the poor I think it’s mostly via metered cell service, or open APs where there is no expectations of privacy and security.

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