LAWRENCE — Only a couple of months after they were installed in 2016, New York City decided to cut off internet access to a series of “smart city” kiosks it built to replace old telephone booths after homeless people monopolized them with such socially unpleasant activities as watching pornography and listening to loud music.
According to a new paper co-authored by Associate Professor of Film & Media Studies Germaine Halegoua, skirmishes like those over LInkNYC “configure how the internet and the city street are and are not public, who is and is not supposed to be using these utilities, and who gets to decide their use.” They write that this sort of failure of imagination plagues planners of both the visible parts of the internet infrastructure, like the kiosks, as well as the unseen and publicly unmapped expanses of “dark fiber” backbone network that are buried throughout America.
In an article published in June in the journal New Media & Society, Halegoua and her co-author, University of Pennsylvania Assistant Professor Jessa Lingel, write that during the 1990s, when much of the current internet infrastructure was built, network operators overestimated the rate at which demand for connectivity would grow. Thus they laid many thousands of miles of glass fibers in underground conduits that have remained unused, or “unlit,” all these years later. That capacity is buried, out of sight and out of the public mind.
In contrast, some recent so-called smart-city efforts to distribute internet access through kiosks, wireless and fiber networks strive for visibility and public access.
The authors say their study “interrogates the social and material decisions about where networks are, who they are for and how they are accessed.” Its title is “Lit up and left dark: Failures of imagination in urban broadband networks.”
For the portion of the study involving the LinkNYC kiosks, Lingel walked around the three New York City boroughs where they had been installed and asked people what they thought about the kiosks, which the authors liken to “a Swiss Army knife of digital technology support, all free of charge.”
The authors write that the Links, as they were called, “originally provided four key functions: a USB charger, a Wi-Fi hotspot, phone calls (provided by Vonage) and a web browser.”
Lingel asked users who they thought had installed the Links and for what purpose. In fact, LinkNYC was a partnership between the city and companies including Qualcomm and Google.
Halegoua’s portion of the study was even trickier to tease out.
“Maps of dark fiber are generally not available,” she said. “That’s private, corporate information.”
So Halegoua used grant money from the Urban Communication Foundation and International Communication Association to pay for some of the maps she consulted for the study.
That information was compared to the map of LinkNYC kiosks to create a synthesis of the seen and unseen parts of the internet above and below the streets of the city.
As for why there is so much dark fiber honeycombing America today, Halegoua blames it, in part, on overbuilding spurred by turn-of-the-millennium exuberance. Like the LinkNYC creators, the builders of the dark-fiber networks failed to consider a wider range of populations living in rural and inner-city regions who would incorporate internet access into their daily lives.
“It was a failure to imagine future uses and users and also to imagine simultaneous technological developments that disrupted their idea of what a fiber network and public internet access was,” she said. “Today, we have other ways of connecting,” with smartphones served by satellites and cell towers probably the most relevant.
With commercial imperatives having led broadband companies, by and large, to ignore poor communities, “smart cities” looking to improve access “need to expand the imagination of who might use those services and how,” Haleguoa said. “If loud music is a problem, you might design the system differently.”
Some cities, including Lawrence, invested in fiber networks that wound up remaining largely dark. Urban planners and communities should try to learn from these histories, Halegoua said, and she hopes her paper can provide “recommendations … for policymakers who want to build an urban broadband network that is more equitable or socially just.”
Halegoua is continuing her research on dark-fiber networks, with plans to write a book on the subject next year.
Photo: A LinkNYC kiosk in Manhattan, shortly after its 2016 debut. Credit: Epicgenius, via Wikimedia Commons