NEW YORK CITY — Internet could soon join electricity, heat, hot water and a phone line as a utility included in every New York City apartment.
A new bill proposed Thursday by Council Member Ben Kallos would require all existing apartments to offer free broadband internet access within three years. Newly constructed apartments would also have to be wired for broadband under the bill.
Kallos said the bill will help close a "digital divide" among New Yorkers — 500,000 of whom don't have internet access and struggle to apply for food benefits, work remotely, do homework or book COVID-19 vaccine appointments. He said the internet should be considered a utility.
"I can't make internet a utility, only the FCC can, but I can make it required in everyone's apartment just like heat, electricity, hot water and phone service," he said.
The coronavirus pandemic put the internet's necessity into stark relief.
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Zoom calls and remote learning became part of everyday life for New Yorkers. And those without internet found themselves left behind as the coronavirus vaccine rolled out, according to a recent CDC study.
New York City areas with disparities in internet access such as East Harlem, which Kallos represents, had lower vaccination rates, the study found.
"COVID-19 vaccination was significantly associated with household internet access in New York City at the zip code level," the study states.
Kallos said internet access — or lack thereof — also fueled a "homework gap" for New York City students during the pandemic.
Schools went fully remote for months and students without internet at home fell behind, he said.
"Kids were trying to learn on an iPad using a 4G connection that's spotty at best," he said.
The bill requires new construction and existing dwellings with more than 10 units to provide Ethernet ports for wired broadband. Kallos said that internet is more reliable than wireless, although he noted the speeds are slower than many other connections.
Tenants would be still be able to get higher speed internet under the bill.
Kallos said building owners who can't afford the upgrade can apply for aid. He noted that landlords can purchase internet at bulk rate for as little as $14.95 a month per unit — a cost he said those who charge thousands of dollars a month can easily absorb.