Helping Harlem Stay Connected

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How will a new technological endeavor that brings affordable Web devices into residents’ homes through a community-based broadband network benefit residents of Harlem? Olivier Sylvain, associate professor of law at Fordham, and a team of lawyers, engineers, and entrepreneurs intend to find out.

The National Science Foundation has awarded Sylvain and his colleagues a $1 million grant over three years. The award is part of the NSF’s program for Smart and Connected Communities. The project aims to remedy the relatively low rates of broadband adoption and the deficit of advanced networked devices among Harlem residents.

The team will research ways in which edge and cloud computing technologies might close the access gap for residents. The plan will hopefully result in lower consumer costs, improved energy efficiency, simplified management, and stronger security. Servers will be centrally located in subscribing buildings, wherein residents can connect to Wi-Fi using affordable devices. Subscribers will receive tablets to access a wide range of services.

“Broadband deployment and adoption are eminently local problems that require active community engagement and entrepreneurship, and that’s what we have here,” said Sylvain.

Taking a holistic approach, the team will prompt all local stakeholders—including government officials, building owners, local businesses, university researchers, civic organizations, and users—to participate in the network’s governance. Sylvain and team member Sheila Foster (former Fordham Law professor, now at Georgetown) will develop an iterative process that brings in these stakeholders in order to develop a public trust agreement that participants will memorialize in a binding legal instrument. This approach draws heavily on Foster’s groundbreaking research on governing urban commons. Sylvain, for his part, has been writing extensively about expanding opportunities for online engagement for historically underserved and unserved communities.

Promising more affordable and energy efficient service along with more secure and connected communities, the project aims to counter the indifference of big-name providers like Verizon and Spectrum.

“What does it look like when communities feel empowered to deploy infrastructures?” asked Sylvain. ”My hope is that this project will unsettle the political economy for the better.”

In addition to Sylvain and Foster, the team includes Dan Kilper (leading researcher), research professor at the University of Arizona’s College of Optical Sciences; Rider Foley, assistant professor of the University of Virginia’s Department of Engineering and Society; Malathi Veeraraghavan, professor of the University of Virginia’s Charles L. Brown Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering; and Clayton Banks and Bruce Lincoln, co-founders of Silicon Harlem, a nationally recognized for-profit social venture dedicated to the sustainability of Harlem as a Technology and Innovation Hub.

Although the team will face challenges, such as balancing participation among major and minor subscribers and ensuring that subscribers will use the devices to their fullest capacity, Sylvain is confident that the project will empower participants in the Harlem community. With early subscribers including schools and hospitals, along with the Apollo Theater and the Studio Museum in Harlem, the team anticipates that the new service will make a positive impact on crucial aspects of the community.

He also hopes that other communities beyond Harlem will have similar opportunities to optimize their network services.

“For me this is no small matter, because communications are essential for the operation of democracy,” said Sylvain. “In order for someone to really engage the community in which they inhabit, they have to have the capacity, the instruments necessary to engage.

“We are here to make sure that people can engage and maximize their communicative capacities in ways they haven’t been before.”

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