Internet access in New York City is becoming a luxury. 41 and 29 percent of Black and Latino homes don't have a computer, much less a high-speed connection. Says Simran Noor of New York City's Center for Social Inclusion (CSI): "Between affording rent, transit and food, broadband may seem relatively low on the list of needs for low-income communities and communities of color, but in reality broadband access is a vital connector to opportunity."

We all need it, says Noah Sullivan, a recent high-school graduate from the Lower East Side: "In a new day and age where everything is technology-based, there are going to be a lot of things that people need the Internet for, for just basic needs." Teachers assign homework, employers receive job applications, social lives exist and appointments are made—all online. Those who can't afford the Internet at home turn to public libraries, community centers and even McDonald's for access or rely on mobile devices.

The power of the city to bridge the gap between need for and access to broadband and the ability of private companies and nonprofit groups to help span parts of the digital divide are being tested on several fronts.

Calling for cable

It's not just affordability that keeps some less connected. Anthony Keith, a resident of Bushwick, would gladly pay more to upgrade his oft-slow and spotty dial-up connection, but he can't. That's because Verizon's faster and more reliable fiber-optic FiOS service isn't available there, yet. Says Keith, "They haven't expanded yet, and I'm assuming that's because the area has not fully been gentrified yet. I feel like they're holding back until that happens."

For Verizon and its New York City counterparts—like Cablevision and Time Warner—some neighborhoods offer more profits than others. But Verizon cannot play favorites; it has a franchise agreement with the city to wire the entire city with fiber optics, placing the company under the public eye.

Last year then-Public Advocate Bill de Blasio called out Verizon for neglecting the South Bronx, Upper Manhattan, Central Brooklyn and Western Queens. Verizon denied de Blasio's claims and in response to similar concerns recently issued a press release assuring the public that, "As of the end of 2013, the company had completed network upgrades passing premises in 90 percent of the Bronx, 89 percent of Brooklyn, 94 percent of Manhattan, 90 percent of Queens and virtually the entirety of Staten Island."

Verizon's failure to meet its July 2014 deadline for wiring the city has also drawn public scorn. For this, Verizon blames Superstorm Sandy, which forced the company to redirect resources to rebuilding water-damaged infrastructure. According to Verizon, the citywide fiber network should be completed later this year.

The mayor has also demanded that the telecommunication giant provide more affordable service to low-income residents, though the city's power to affect such change is unclear. Noor of CSI says, "I think the city has a little bit of leverage and power in positioning themselves to force—or not force, to have a conversation with—these large companies about what it looks like to think about public interest and public benefit."

A city's leverage

As Noor and others point out, the city government is one of the largest Internet users in the city. The New York City Housing Authority, for example, could use its sway to demand affordable access for low-income residents. Public schools could provide free Internet to their communities. The city can also make an impact through its allocation of funds for the ConnectNYC, Connect IBZ (Industrial Business Zone) and Rise: NYC initiatives—all of which provide grants for expanding or securing Internet access.

But beyond these powers, the city's authority to govern Internet distribution depends in large part on how the Internet—and the infrastructure that it runs on—is classified. And that's where it gets divisive. Is Internet a public utility that everyone has a right to? Who owns the infrastructure?

How these questions will be answered in New York City is still unclear. It has long been assumed that the fiber optic wiring laid by Verizon, Time Warner and Cablevision is owned by the companies. This ties the city's hands, preventing it from interfering with who can use those wires, and from preventing an oligopoly of Internet providers in the city. If the Internet providers own the wires, only they'll be able to use them, reducing competition, theoretically resulting in higher prices. And if the Internet is not a public utility, the city's power to force Verizon and the other companies to make the fiber available to and affordable for all is limited.

Some believe the city may have more power than it thinks. A report released in May 2014 by the Public Utility Law Project and New Networks points out that in Verizon's franchise agreement with the city, the fiber optic wires that Verizon has been laying use public-rights-of-way. In the agreement, Verizon agrees that the wires are deployed under Section 27 of the New York Transportation Corporations Law and Title II of the Communications Act. Section 27 allows Verizon to "erect, construct and maintain the necessary fixtures for its lines upon, over or under any of the public roads, streets and highways," while Title II classification makes the wires "common carriage" telecommunication services, which must be equitably distributed, like a public utility.

Verizon gets to use these public rights of way because fiber cables carry phone calls, and all Americans are entitled to a phone landline. Not all of Verizon's services are telecommunications that would enjoy these public rights-of-way on their own; FiOS wouldn't.

What is more, Verizon has raised the rates of residents like Keith—who do not receive the faster service—to help fund the expansion of its fiber optics. For example, as the May report points out, in June 2009 the New York Public Service Commission approved Verizon's request to raise rates on non-fiber customers to help fund what it called in a press release, the company's "massive deployment of fiber optics."

Says Bruce Kushnick, executive director of New Networks, "If de Blasio wanted to get aggressive, what he could do is say, 'Excuse me, seniors and low-income families have been charged excess amounts to pay for this fiber optic wire.'" And if the fiber cables are Title II common carriage mechanisms, paid for by utility rate payers, “deployment should go everywhere." And consumers should get more choice. If Title II applies, "as these networks are common carriage and customer funded, then the FCC should revisit opening the networks [to competition] immediately," Kushnick says.