December 17, 2015

How can New York City find creative solutions to bridging the digital divide? Introducing the broadband “Call for Innovations”

Fiber Optic

Given New York City’s status as one of the world’s great cities, I was surprised to learn how inequitable broadband access is across its five boroughs. Recent analysis by the city's Center for Economic Opportunity found that 22 percent of New York City households do not have Internet service at home, and more than one-third of households below the poverty line are without access to broadband services. And for those that do have access, it is often expensive, slow and characterized by poor customer service.[1]

This lack of access presents significant challenges. Reliable high-speed Internet service is critical for finding a job, accessing educational resources, and connecting with key services. It is also fundamental for the growth and success of new and existing businesses.[2] Fast broadband access is now an essential requirement in today’s economy, and closing the digital divide represents a key pillar in New York City’s fight against inequality.

As a Harvard Kennedy School Ash Center Fellow at the New York City Mayor’s Office of Technology and Innovation last summer, I was part of a team that has been trialing a bold new approach to solving inequitable access to fast Internet service — the broadband “Call for Innovations.” Recognizing that government does not hold all the answers, the office — which is headed by Minerva Tantoco, the city’s first Chief Technology Officer — recently sought new and creative ideas for addressing the digital divide from those it most affects: the community.

Traditionally, when a government seeks to partner with the community to address social and economic challenges, it issues a request for proposals or "RFP." This common form of procurement often solicits detailed ideas in response to an already well-developed and highly specified solution to a problem, for example, how to deliver a new piece of infrastructure. The Call for Innovations — which closed to submissions on June 30 — effectively turned this process on its head. Instead of laying down specific requirements that submitters had to address, the call sought ‘outside-the-box’ ideas and innovative thinking from the community. Applicants from across the globe were open to submit a range of policy proposals or demonstration projects, with the overarching goal of bringing high-speed Internet access to all New Yorkers.[3]

The response to this initial Call for Innovations was overwhelmingly positive. Over 69 ideas were offered from 50 different submitters, all within 11 weeks. Submitters came from a total of six countries, and of those submitters from New York City, proposals were received from four of the five boroughs. Not only was there a wide geographical distribution of submitters, there was also a diversity of institutions proposing solutions, including nonprofits, academic institutions, government, and private companies — the majority of which were small- to medium-sized businesses.

Additionally, the call yielded a surprising range of proposals, pilot project ideas, and policy recommendations. Proposed technology solutions included the deployment of Wi-Fi "mesh" networks and "small cell" technologies, and employing underutilized analog television frequencies to expand broadband access. My preconception that the Internet comes from a cable in the living room wall was definitely dispelled through this process.

Prior to the completion of my Fellowship, our team was spending a significant amount of time collating and analyzing the submissions received, and we issued a follow-up questionnaire seeking additional details to help with our assessment. Eventually, the ideas and proposals put forward as part of this process may be used to advise planning grants or pilots, to shape future solicitations or to guide policy and regulatory changes.[4]

Given the initial success of the model, the broadband Call for Innovations will be the first of many future calls that the Mayor’s Office Technology and Innovation will offer to the community. While there are a number of different ideas being considered for the next round, the high-level objectives will be the same: to encourage innovative thinking that helps define and solve pressing challenges facing the city. As noted by Mayor Bill de Blasio at TechCrunch Disrupt earlier this year, there is a “great opportunity for the tech community not only to make us a strong city economically, but to make us a fairer and better city.”[5] This innovative model offers a new approach for government procurement, which should be closely considered as a way for finding solutions to seemingly intractable problems, not only in New York City, but also in other cities across the country and the globe. 

[1] New York City Mayor’s Office of Technology and Innovation, Call for Innovations: Background Information, April 2015.

[2] Bill Moyers Transcript, Susan Crawford on Why Our Internet Access is Slow, Costly and Unfair, February 8 2013, from

[3] New York City Mayor’s Office of Technology and Innovation website, from

[4] New York City Mayor’s Office of Technology and Innovation website, from

[5] Transcript: Mayor de Blasio Delivers Remarks at TechCrunch Disrupt, May 4 2015, from


The views expressed in the Government Innovators Network blog are those of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, the John F. Kennedy School of Government, or of Harvard University.

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