Yesterday marked the second year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy devastating New York City.
(photo by Beth Carey – FDR Drive in Manhattan flooded)
Two years later, the legacy of Sandy still lives on in neighborhoods like the Rockaways, the Lower East Side, Chinatown, and Red Hook. Conditions in these neighborhoods were not well before the storm – and they got worse afterwards. These conditions were not a result of superstorms like Sandy; they were a result of a long history of disinvestment in infrastructure, services, and housing in those neighborhoods. This lack of investment has meant greater vulnerability of historically disinvested communities, like low-income communities, communities of color, and the elderly – to natural disasters. Sandy exposed these vulnerabilities and devastated these communities in the process.
Because of the lack of investment by the city and state, these communities turned to grassroots leaders to find their way out of the darkness. In the words of Damaris Reyes, Executive Director of Good Ol’ Lower East Side, “community saved community” after Sandy made its landfall.
In the community of Red Hook, the Red Hook Initiative coordinated vital aid to those left stranded in their neighborhood through a wireless mesh network that allows for communication even without internet access. The purpose of the network wasn’t just to connect folks during an emergency. The purpose was to create better infrastructure for their neighborhood, which was one of the least connected in the city. They partnered with Brooklyn Fiber, a small, independent internet service provider (ISP), to develop the network to change this landscape.
The Red Hook Initiative understood that access to the internet is vital to bringing their communities into the 21st century economy in which job applications are filed online, school tests are administered online, and even choosing your health care plan is done online. And, as they saw during and after Sandy, a local, community-centered network is also vital for their neighborhood during a crisis.
Yet, communities that benefit from home-grown innovation like in Red Hook are being threatened not by another Sandy, but a superstorm of concentrated and central control that is on the horizon:
The upcoming merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable, two telecom giants.
Comcast, one of the nation’s largest telecom companies, plans to buy its major rival, Time Warner Cable. This merger would create a media behemoth that would reshape the internet by raising prices and limiting competition. Each of these companies already have a less than stellar record serving communities, particularly low-income communities, rural communities and communities of color. With the merger, coverage, access and quality would likely decrease, thereby locking millions out of the 21st century economy.
The Federal Communications Commission decision on Net Neutrality
On May 15, 2014, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposed rules that allow telecom giants like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon to create a two-tiered internet – a fast late for those who can afford it and a slow lane for everyone else. This ruling threatens a free and open internet, which is a cornerstone of our democracy in the 21st century.
Concentrating power in the hands of a few is dangerous and, among many consequences, will stifle the community innovation that helped communities like Red Hook literally rise from the disasters they faced – both man-made and natural.
So what can we do?
As advocates have argued, we should challenge mergers that threaten less choice and less competition for communities. We also should demand community benefits from large telecoms that want to do business where we live. And, we must demand a free and open internet so that everyone, including low-income communities and communities of color – to connect and communicate in our information-sharing world.
But, in the face of increasing natural disasters coupled with continual disinvestment in struggling communities, we need more strategies. We should look to Red Hook and also invest in local community-scale networks. Investing in these networks would shift power away from large companies to local communities, spur innovation, build long-term opportunity, and help communities weather future storms.
This past Monday, I participated in a town hall organized by the Free Press, Demand Progress, Common Cause, Media Justice, MAG-Net and Consumers Union to say to the FCC that we want one internet with no blocking and no discrimination #NYSpeaks #OneInternet Click here for my official prepared remarks.