Connecting the Last Twenty Percent in Newark - Episode 587 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast

Newark, New Jersey (pop. 307k) has been operating a dark fiber network for more than a decade. In recent years, the city has expanded its efforts to leverage those assets in an incremental effort to improve connectivity and competition for local business and residents, while also building out a robust Wi-Fi network. The goal: build a portfolio of approaches to connect the last twenty percent of the city that doesn't have access today. 

This week on the podcast, Christopher is joined by Aaron Meyerson, Chief Innovation Economy Officer and Director of Broadband, and Anthony Avent, Technical Operations for City of Newark, to talk about the project. From reinvigorating the city's infrastructure with a new public-private partnership, to connecting almost a hundred large business locations, to enabling innovative smart-city applications to fight heat and pollution, to supporting more than 7,200 active Wi-Fi users every day, Newark isn't just sitting around waiting for someone to help solve local challenges. They're stepping up to the plate and tackling them themselves.

This show is 28 minutes long and can be played on this page or using the podcast app of your choice with this feed.

Transcript below.

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Listen to other episodes here or see other podcasts from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance here.

Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.


Aaron Myerson (00:07):
I think what's fantastic about the city of Newark is that there is a lot of interest in doing big things. So if you have the energy and can convince the people to do it, they are pro doing it.

Christopher Mitchell (00:19):
Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. That didn't sound right. Lemme try that again. Podcast. [00:00:30] Alright. I don't know Travis, you let me know which one you like better. The show this week is very exciting and I'm excited to be talking with Newark because, and I'm going to introduce these folks in a second, but I just want to lay it out. First of all, I'm Chris Mitchell and my head is everywhere. And for months I've been telling people that if you look at the top 100 metros in the United States, vast majority of them, like 90 of them, have almost nothing that they are doing to improve Internet access in their community. It's not even a big priority. [00:01:00] They talk like it is, but they don't have any plans. But Newark has been doing this for a while. We've talked about it one other time, and now we're going to get the latest and greatest. We have on Aaron Myerson, the Chief Innovation Economy Officer and the director of broadband. He's working with Invest Newark, which is an economic development agency and the Newark Alliance, which is focused on trade. Welcome Aaron.

Aaron Myerson (01:22):
Thank you so much for having me.

Christopher Mitchell (01:23):
And we also have from the city, Anthony nt, the technical operations person for the city of Newark. Welcome. [00:01:30] Thank

Anthony Avent (01:30):
You. Nice to be here with you today.

Christopher Mitchell (01:32):
Yeah, no, and I'm excited because I got so frustrated at cities that looked at this and then often for political reasons I would say we're like, well, we either have to figure out how to build a fiber connection to everyone so I can be the governor or we're doing nothing. Newark had the wisdom to say, let's figure out how we can make a difference with some modest investments and figure out how to really make people's lives better, how to improve business and that sort of a thing. So we have talked about this before. [00:02:00] As I said before, Seth Waner was on the show back in episode 511 on June 30th, 2022. I think that show had the most praise for me, just so Anthony and Aaron are aware. Seth gave me a lot of credit for what's going on in Newark, is my recollection of it. So that struck me, you should not do that. It makes me deeply uncomfortable because obviously I have no responsibility for any of the great work that Newark has done. But if Aaron's voice is familiar, he was on episode 5 25, [00:02:30] which was when he was leaving work that he did with the city of New York in November 2nd, 2022. So Aaron's been with Newark ever since then. So we're excited to learn what's going on. And Aaron, let me ask you, why is this a priority for the city of Newark?

Aaron Myerson (02:48):
Sure. Thanks so much for having us both, and happy to dive in there. So Newark, like many major metros, has a broadband both infrastructure [00:03:00] and adoption gap, right? And as we know, there's lots of different possible interventions that can be done, but it's very expensive and hard to do. What we've seen in Newark is that about one in five households lack an in-home broadband connection. This was from a CS stats from a couple of years ago, and really we were looking at some of the things that the city can do to address that. Before I ever came, and Anthony can talk about this a lot more, but the city had their own fiber network, [00:03:30] so Newark's fiber apostrophes network throughout the city and some creative minds. Seth Weiner and Anthony combined came up with ideas to expand access to try and connect that one in five that were under connected or unconnected, and also a way to try and brand the city as being a well-connected city.

What's interesting about Newark is that it actually has a density of fiber in the streets. We have one of the largest data centers on the eastern [00:04:00] seaboard at 1 65 Halsey Street. Oftentimes it's talked about, this is where the Internet comes up for air once it goes in New York City and everything goes under the river and pops up here in Newark. And so there's a lot of fiber in the streets, there's a lot of infrastructure in the streets, but it's not in everybody's home and it's not in everybody's building. And so we saw that and said we need to do something, and that's where the origin of Newark fiber really took root.

Christopher Mitchell (04:25):
And Anthony, could you just give us a quick landscape of Newark's fiber, the city's [00:04:30] own network, and then a little sense of the technology too, because I think Newark Fiber, which is the partnership fiber to get people and businesses connected, I know that uses a mix of fiber and wireless and I wasn't sure if Newark's fiber does the same. So just give us a little layout of that please.

Anthony Avent (04:49):
So like Aaron said, Newark, we have a large fiber infrastructure throughout aerial fiber above ground and dark fiber underground. [00:05:00] Before we started this broadband program, we had about 30 linear miles of fiber throughout the city that was being maintenance, and the network was being ran by Verizon. We decided to create this P three partnership with the city of Newark, invest Newark and Gig Zero to be able to take over that fiber infrastructure and create our own network that we could then supply [00:05:30] throughout the city. Right now we have over 80 buildings served and about 60% of those are wireless. So they're point to point connections. The rest of them are fiber connections directly from the street into the building facility.

Christopher Mitchell (05:50):
And when you say 80 buildings for people who have not been to Newark, many of those are big buildings with a lot of people and a lot of businesses in them. [00:06:00] It's not a small number. And then you mentioned the density of fiber. Aaron Newark has a tremendous density of people and businesses as well.

Anthony Avent (06:08):
Yep. We have a mixed use of municipal buildings, so those are and public safety buildings. So those are courthouses, fire stations, police stations, but as you said, we also have buildings full of people, so residential buildings, commercial buildings, and also hospitals.

Christopher Mitchell (06:26):
Alright. And we're going to talk about how there are plans to [00:06:30] make sure that this network benefits still more people, but let's spend a little bit of time talking about how the network already benefits people and other applications that the city is working on. And I think Anthony, you were going to share some of the uses of the Newark's fiber.

Anthony Avent (06:47):
By maintaining our own network through Newark fiber, we're able to add a lot of applications to it. So one of those applications that's easy to understand is free wifi in the streets. Another application [00:07:00] is our link kiosk. We also have weather sensors and other pollution based sensors that could detect different levels of air quality throughout the city. We also have shot spotters, things for public safety that help us locate when something bad is happening. We're also able to leverage our fiber [00:07:30] to maintain a public safety radio network that is beneficial for police, fire ambulances and anybody dealing with emergency situations. We have our own emergency radios and it all runs on NORC fiber.

Christopher Mitchell (07:49):
Now, let's go back for a second. I always want to know, and I'll ask you this first, Anthony and then Aaron, I don't know if you have any thoughts. I'm sure you've studied what a lot of cities have done, but [00:08:00] weather and pollution sensors, and I think these things are tremendously important, but I don't know that people always immediately appreciate that. Why is that important for the city to have those things? It's

Anthony Avent (08:10):
Important for the city to have those things because it helps us identify problem areas. So if a certain area has a high pollution, we can look into that area and see what we can do to mitigate some of those factors. We can also look at certain areas throughout the city and [00:08:30] correlate that with how people move throughout the city. So if it's a very highly trafficked route through the city, we could look at saying, why is it so hot or why is the pollution so bad there? And then we can work with our urban planners or other environmental groups throughout the city to help improve those areas. So if it's really hot on one route that a lot of people walk daily, we can maybe talk with our urban planners about planting more trees.

Christopher Mitchell (09:00):
[00:09:00] That's cool. And that's the sort of long-term stuff that makes cities work so much better. And I just feel like people don't appreciate that cities actually do that. Aaron, anything you want to add to that?

Aaron Myerson (09:08):
I think Anthony was being modest there and when we talk about, for example, the outdoor wifi, it's actually pretty robust. Many of the cities, major parks, military park, Harriet Tubman Square are major commercial corridors like Broad Street and Ferry Street. This public wifi isn't an afterthought. It's a conscious effort to connect [00:09:30] the major commercial corridors throughout the city to make sure that residents have access and small businesses in those areas can sometimes operate as well. And we saw that during the pandemic, many students were doing homework in the parks because of the gigabit speed wifi that was available and publicly available to them and we've made strategic investments to expand that. So Riverfront Park as well in the city was recently lit up as well as the expansion on Halsey Street in partnership with the Rutgers Newark Connecting Minorities [00:10:00] Communities grant, which helped fund that work by they're trying to improve both connectivity on their campus as well as the city itself.

One of the other great things that the network has allowed us to do and just generally sort of having ownership and control over it is focus on specific projects. So for example, one of the things Anthony and team led over the last year or so is connecting all sorts of recreation centers in all five wards. So there's rec centers in all five wards [00:10:30] and now have super high-speed Internet. The JFK rec center in particular has this state-of-the-art gaming room that's only available because it has this high-speed connection from our own network that we control. The other thing too that we just went live with a couple of weeks ago, one of the other initiatives in Newark is to house residents without addresses or the homeless. And they recently opened up Hope Village two, which is a residence [00:11:00] facility for 24 homeless newarkers. And every unit has a Newark fiber wifi connection from our network from point to point that we were able to install there.

And so this network really allows us to do a lot of the strategic interventions that we want to do to address not just connectivity, but making sure that all avenues of the city's sort of priorities are addressed here. I think the other thing too, we mentioned there's about [00:11:30] 70 buildings that are connected. Again, this is to your point, Christopher primarily in the downtown core, but there's hundreds of clients that are on that network, both residential, commercial and the city itself that are using that network. And that continues to grow as we get more clients and customers signed up on the network. Newark fiber as the brand public fiber partnership is always trying to look for partners and new clients to help us expand the network and expand [00:12:00] our operations as well.

Anthony Avent (12:02):
When Aaron's talking about the wifi network, currently we're servicing about, I'm looking at the numbers, about 7,200 people on average daily in those parks that we just talked about. We're also able to leverage that network for outdoor events. So we just had 24 hours a piece, we were able to supply that full concert for the 24 hours with gigabit connections. But [00:12:30] what's important to note is that we were able to do that in a day or two day effort. So without this network, that would've taken much longer. Other services providers weren't in the area, but were able to, if the mayor or somebody wants to have an event, we're able to turn on that connection pretty quickly and save ourselves costs and time on planning these events out.

Christopher Mitchell (12:56):
Cool. The question that often comes up with this is one [00:13:00] of owning the network, people assume that you then have to hire wifi engineers and all this other stuff and that's an option. But I'm curious for this work, do you have contracts? How do they actually organize the work getting done?

Aaron Myerson (13:15):
So it is a complex web of labor, so the way we can try to describe it is that the city itself, so Anthony and his team own the fiber cable. It's a large strand count, 288 [00:13:30] count of fiber that the city uses for its full operations. A portion of that is branded as Newark Fiber and connects those other buildings, invest Newark as the economic development agency manages the contract with Gig Zero, our technical partner who actually provides the Internet service for our customers. And then we work with local contractors to go out and do a lot of the labor for us. So whether that be splicing or lineman work or networking and [00:14:00] those contractors, we work with a number of different ones, but they're all local and we really pride ourselves specifically on hiring local MWBE businesses, which are from the community. And I think around 90 to 95% of every dollar we spend goes to local MWBE businesses. And that's really important for us and it's something that we can consciously do because we have full control over that work.

Christopher Mitchell (14:27):
There's so much here. I'm excited to [00:14:30] talk about a bunch of it. Let me ask you if we can move on to talking about one other way. You're working with businesses. How have some of the businesses benefited from this network being available?

Aaron Myerson (14:42):
So I'll share one. So in one case we as the economic development agency for the city, we often work with a lot of small businesses that are looking to grow and expand and they know to come to the city or to invest Newark for support. One small company, the Downtown Realty group, a local realtor, Melvin [00:15:00] Sykes is located on Halsey Street, very popular commercial corridor here in the city. And they were having trouble getting the connection from the incumbent providers here in the city. They were asking them exorbitant fees to make the connection for his new office space. And so they came to us looking for help and while it came at an expense for us, it was important for us to support the local business community. And so we stepped forward, ate the cost for that expansion so that we'd make [00:15:30] sure that he had a connection and therefore his neighbors also had then a connection and he was able to then get his operations up and running. He's in a first floor retail, and so the apartments above were able to get access to the Newark fiber connection. And then we're working on some of the neighbors as well, small businesses to make that connection. And this is the type of intervention that we can do because we can make that conscious. It's not necessarily about the bottom line decision, but about making sure that the city is supported from a small business and economic development perspective.

Anthony Avent (15:58):
We can ultimately [00:16:00] also, like Aaron was saying, we can get them that access that they want to broadband typically much faster and on an annual basis, we're reducing costs significantly. We're also providing high bandwidth speeds, so our lower costs might be at a higher bandwidth tier as well.

Christopher Mitchell (16:21):
And I'm curious, has that been challenging? I mean, this is one of those things where, and Anthony, I'm curious for you in particular, a lot of the folks I talk to [00:16:30] who are the most technical people in a city's budget, they're intimidated by this and they're like, I don't even know what questions to ask. I'm curious, how did you get into this? And can you give any words of wisdom to other folks that just don't know where to start?

Anthony Avent (16:46):
You guys were talking about earlier with Seth Waner. I got into a lot of this with Seth Waner and he was a great mentor. But also just digging into our right of way access agreements and different agreements throughout the city, [00:17:00] understanding what we could do and what we couldn't do. And then looking at groups like Invest nor really having a group like Invest nor is really, really pivotal and important for running this type of operation because there's a lot of limitations that you do have as a city.

Christopher Mitchell (17:17):
Well, let me ask you before, I want to ask Aaron to continue on that, but I'm curious, of all the things that you are responsible for technically Anthony, is Fiber one of the harder ones or is it kind of in the middle? Where would you [00:17:30] put it in terms of all the different things that you have to worry about going wrong and keeping running and all that?

Anthony Avent (17:34):
Fiber is definitely high up on the list. There's typically the hardest times are when we have broken fiber lines because we have so many different networks in this city to operate and manage. It could be a residential building that's down, but it also could be two precincts, could be a rec center. So really the hardest thing is managing people [00:18:00] and their expectations and the network downtime, making sure the network downtime as small as possible.

Aaron Myerson (18:07):
Anthony manages not only technical operations, but client to customer success, which is the entire city workforce as well.

Anthony Avent (18:15):

Christopher Mitchell (18:16):
If I had to guess, managing people is probably always much harder than managing wires.

Anthony Avent (18:21):
Yes. And so we have a large network, a lot of equipment and a lot of different technical [00:18:30] devices, but definitely managing people and their expectations and time management is really the difficult part and doing that with small staff here in the city.

Christopher Mitchell (18:42):
And then Aaron, do you have any, I mean you obviously came from New York City, which is incomparable to other cities in a lot of ways, but now that you've been at Newark, I'm curious if you have advice for other cities that might be thinking about this.

Aaron Myerson (18:56):
I think what's fantastic about the city of Newark is that [00:19:00] there is a lot of interest in doing big things. So a lot of the sensor work and outdoor wifi and generally this larger Newark fiber project in general, if you have the energy and can convince the people to do it, they're pro doing it. And I think that with a city like Newark, like many cities, resource constrained, lots of other different priorities, but if you can muster enough attention, they're really willing and interested in supporting you in [00:19:30] doing these things. I think in the city of New York we're doing things, the level of bureaucracy and politics to a lot of different projects and things sometimes got in the way of what was the right thing to do. And I think here in Newark it's like the right thing to do is to get affordable Internet into as many people as possible. And if we have a good way of doing it, let's do it. The answer is usually like, yes, try and find a way. And I think that the city and the mayor is very good about [00:20:00] if there's an interesting and creative way to do things. Yes, let's try and find a way which has been really quite refreshing.

Christopher Mitchell (20:07):
So you've accomplished a lot and you have residents, you have city agencies, you have businesses, small businesses, very large businesses on the network, but you have a plan for what's next, so what's next?

Aaron Myerson (20:22):
So in terms of expansion, we tried to do a number of things over the last year or so. So one was promoting the affordable connectivity program. [00:20:30] We won an outreach grant and so spent a lot of time and energy focusing on Newark specifically given nearly 70% of the city was eligible. As of right now, a third of the entire city, a third of all households in the city are signed up for the affordable connectivity program. So it's is going to have a dramatic impact on the residents of Newark.

Christopher Mitchell (20:52):
Well, let me just say congratulations, because that shows a level of success in organizing that we've not seen in many places to exceed [00:21:00] 50% or right around that 50% of eligibility. Mark is impressive.

Aaron Myerson (21:05):
Thank you. Yeah, that was our goal and we've been pushing really hard with community organizations and outreach and really trying to leverage our grant as much as possible. And we've seen tremendous uptake. And again, this is one of those things where to the leadership of the city, we said this is a good thing to promote and sort of everybody got on board to get as many residents as possible, city council members, public housing, the mayor himself. And so it's [00:21:30] been a great success and so we're now trying to figure out how to manage that messaging as we live into the new age of a CP. That being said, at the same time we also spun up another program to try and increase competition in the city. Since we know that increased competition helps bring down prices and new options for residents is just generally better for consumers.

We launched a request, we call it a request for collaboration, not necessarily a request for proposals because we really wanted [00:22:00] to find a collaborator. And so we did a request for collaboration in early 2023 to find a Internet service provider to work with us to connect primarily public housing residents in the Newark Housing Authority, leveraging Newark Housing Authority assets. But also we gave access to in partnership with schools and police and the fire stations pretty much like any physical real estate that the city had control over saying, Hey, if you had access to this, what could you do? We've identified [00:22:30] a vendor that we're working with. We are partnering with the Newark Housing Authority, and as of the end of last year, we have 12 public housing buildings with 1200 units that now have access to new Internet options in both the North Ward and south wards of Newark. At the end of the year, we had over 200 residents that were signed up on that service. This is 200 megabit by 200 megabit service. So twice as fast as what the FCC defines as [00:23:00] broadband. A

Christopher Mitchell (23:02):
Little bit more than that even.

Aaron Myerson (23:03):
Yeah, we tried to push it, right. We were saying, if you're going to come in and to partner with us, we want you to be really fast and they have to be fully free with a CP. So all of those residents right now are fully free. All 1200 are eligible, and obviously the 200 are already on completely free with a CP starting today, we have two more developments going on board with another 440 units that will be completed in the month of February in [00:23:30] the central and East wards. So again, just trying to get more public housing residents and newer housing residents connected with new Internet options. We hope that that increased competition will bring the incumbents down on their pricing, but also give that new provider a footprint to go off and provide market rate services at a competitive rate as well to the surrounding buildings.

I want to note too that on this project, again, we asked to partner with local [00:24:00] workforce. And so for that Internet provider that's coming in to do this work, hired locally, hired a local workforce development team and a local contractor that should train residents on how to do this work and then hired them back to actually do the implementation work. So we've tried to align incentives. Again, workforce, we have a lot of people that are under and unemployed, and so we're trying to align incentives where if the city's putting resources and time and energy into doing a project, [00:24:30] we want you to hire local. And they really have come through. We've hired at least eight residents on broadband deployments, and then now we're working with a new partner on this expansion piece with a local contractor that does workforce development as well. So we're super proud that we're able to sort of align incentives across the board between the Internet provider, public housing, the city, and our workforce development and small vendors as well.

Christopher Mitchell (24:56):
That's exciting. And one of the things I'm curious about as we're about [00:25:00] to wrap up is, Anthony, I'm curious, as I said earlier, the vast majority of metro areas are not doing anything like this. Do you feel like you're pathbreaking or do you just feel like it's Tuesday?

Anthony Avent (25:11):
No, I definitely feel like we're pathbreaking making waves in doing something really important. We just received a grant from the National Science Foundation that we're working on with Rutgers University with this grant, we have been able to install data servers to acquire data [00:25:30] from our various sensors and devices, but not only from those places. We're also taking data from our departments and other sources to create a comprehensive dashboard to analyze all this data and resolve service conflicts throughout the city through a dashboard that I've never seen before. But I think by doing things like this, we're really pushing the dial and trying to do something different.

Christopher Mitchell (25:53):
Yeah, that's great. Any last words from either one of you about Newark and Newark Fiber and Newark's fiber?

Aaron Myerson (26:00):
[00:26:00] This is truly like a team effort and the number of organizations and entities across Newark, which I think is also special. The business community, the nonprofit community, the city itself, all come together then recognize that this is an issue. Newark is sort of like a small town, big city where everybody knows each other and everybody's willing to work together to solve our sort of big city problems. And I think that's been a pleasure to get involved here and really proud of the work that we do.

Anthony Avent (26:28):
Newark Fiber is a great service. [00:26:30] It's hard work, but it's important.

Christopher Mitchell (26:33):
Yeah. Well that's what I like to hear. I never want to lie to people and say, this is going to be easy. I usually want to say, is it going to be worth it?

Aaron Myerson (26:42):
If somebody is telling you it's easy, they're lying to you.

Christopher Mitchell (26:45):
Yes. Alright. Or they're doing something horribly wrong, you'll find out in a few years. Yeah. Alright, well thank you both for your time today. Thank you.

Aaron Myerson (26:54):
Thanks for having us.

Ry Marcattilio (26:55):
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