Westchester four largest cities are teaming up for a $750 million plan to bring ultra-high-speed gigabit broadband to residents and businesses.
Along with the Westchester County Association business group, the mayors of Yonkers, Mount Vernon, White Plains and New Rochelle announced on Oct. 6 the launch of a public-private initiative to provide gigabit internet in their cities, which officials say is fast enough to spur new business and innovation in education, health care, government and other industries.
The scale and significance of the gigabit project compares to other major infrastructure projects in the county, such as the building of the Metro-North rail line and the Tappan Zee Bridge, officials said at a press conference Thursday.
“This is nothing short of revolutionary for our county,” said William Mooney Jr., president and CEO of the Westchester County Association.
Gigabit internet speed is about 200 times faster than an average broadband speed in the U.S.
“Imagine [internet speeds] as fast as the speed of light, wow. You can say wow,” Mooney said to the crowd gathered in the press room at 1133 Westchester Ave in White Plains.
The four cities would represent the first in New York state to offer gigabit broadband, which is available in about 50 cities nationwide. Google offers it though the Google Fiber gigabit service it operates or is close to operating in 18 cities. AT&T Inc. offers fiber internet service in 29 cities, with 11 more on the way.
The speedier internet can greatly expand a city’s capability across all sectors. It opens up options for telemedicine in hospitals, enhanced communications for first responders, expanded online education in schools and enables businesses to download and share large files in seconds.
“As we come to rely on high-speed access to individual information, whether we are businesses or medical providers or residents, that type of high-speed access is not going to be a luxury, it’s going to be a requirement,” said New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson.
White Plains Thomas Roach said that, while there was a “friendly rivalry” between the cities, the Westchester mayors have been more focused on working together. “Let’s get Stamford,” he joked.
“One of the things that we are all benefiting from is a shift back to cities,” Roach added. He described the gigabit broadband as the next step in helping the four cities grow.
Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano, whose city is attempting a $2 billion rebuild of its school system, stressed the value the turbo-charged internet speeds could provide students at all levels. He and other speakers talked about a “digital divide,” where both children and adults in lower-income households don’t have equal levels of access to an internet connection at home.
“I know that with the leadership here we will be able to make some great accomplishments and move us into making sure every child has an opportunity at getting a great education,” Spano said. “Because that’s how we beat poverty.”
The impact gigabit broadband could have on poverty and the digital divide was also emphasized by Mount Vernon Mayor Richard Thomas, who said that in some areas of Mount Vernon you can “access a handgun quicker than you can access an iPhone or tablet.”
“This investment will make it possible for communities of color, particularly Mount Vernon, to gain access to technology and provide alternatives to violence,” Thomas said.
“The only limit to technology is accessibility,” he added.
This is the first time that four cities have come together to work toward improving internet infrastructure, according to Joan McDonald, former commissioner of the state Dept.of Transportation and now an adviser to the Westchester County Association.
“For broadband to be successful, you have to have a critical mass,” McDonald said. “And bringing the four cities together, we have that critical mass.”
Cities also have the franchise agreements with internet service providers, which makes them a natural government source for the WCA to work with, McDonald added.
How exactly this will all work — and, of course, be paid for — is still unclear. McDonald walked through a few possible models. Some cities, such as Chattanooga, Tenn. which is nicknamed Gig City, use a public model, where a city or city-owned agency operates the network. Others have done a public-private model.
Funding will be available from state and federal sources, as well from internet service providers, McDonald said. Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced this year a $500 million Broadband For All initiative, though that is targeted for rural areas and offers internet speed that would be slower than what would be built in the four cities.
“We will have conversations with the [internet service] providers, both those that are currently in the Westchester market and those that desire to come to the Westchester market,” McDonald said.
McDonald said over the next three weeks the WCA will evaluate the technological infrastructure for the four cities.
The Westchester County Association will soon launch a steering committee with members from Westchester’s cities and multiple industry sectors. Mooney said the group will also announce a project manager to direct the gigabit process in the next two to three weeks.
“This is kind of like spring training at this point,” Mooney said. “The game starts in about an hour.”
Mooney estimated the four-city infrastructure project will take three to four years to complete.