At Community Board Meeting, A Pitch for a More Connected Harlem

For Joi Dailey, the Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts in her neighborhood are more than just places to grab breakfast or a hot beverage. They’re the place where she can go online for free to check e-mail and browse the web.

Dailey, a Harlem resident, and her 14-year-old son, Richard, are among the 30 percent of households in Upper Manhattan that cannot afford broadband and have no access to cable or the internet at home.

“I have to choose between rent and Wi-Fi,” said Dailey, who works as a housekeeper and runs a part-time business selling sandals to friends and family. “So I go with rent, and then I borrow Wi-Fi.”

Silicon Harlem, a for-profit tech-focused organization, is trying to change that. At Wednesday’s Community Board 10 meeting, Clayton Banks and Bruce Lincoln announced an initiative, Connect Uptown, to make high-speed internet more accessible and affordable for Harlem residents. The company plans to deploy alternative Wi-Fi solutions with alternative broadband infrastructure, The Silicon Harlem Network, in 20 Harlem apartment buildings next year.

“Broadband is the most important utility in the home,” said Banks, who co-founded Silicon Harlem with Lincoln in 2013.

In addition to the cost Banks said that many  Harlemites do not have Wi-Fi because they lack digital literacy. That is, they do not realize how important it is to have access to high-speed internet at home.

Dailey, however, said she does understand the significance of Wi-Fi. Her son has many homework assignments that require internet access. He completes his work at the public library, often under a tight deadline, since the computers often have strict 30-minute time constraints for usage.

“If you have two hours of homework and you’re stopping and thinking, you waste a couple of minutes,” Dailey said. “It’s hard.”

The city has recently made Wi-Fi more accessible for residents, partnering with LinkNYC to install “Link” kiosks across the five boroughs. The structures provide free public internet and device charging.

At the community board meeting, Banks said that 25 percent of the city’s Link kiosks are located in Harlem.

Silicon Harlem was one of the organizations that testified in support of the LinkNYC initiative in 2014.

While the Link kiosks are convenient for New Yorkers in transit, Banks said, they’re no substitution for at-home Wi-Fi access.

“You’ll see young people hanging around trying to get a Wi-Fi connection to try and do homework on a cell phone,” Banks said. “That is not right. When it comes to doing your homework, you need to be at home with a nice big screen.”

Besides the coming broadband initiative, Silicon Harlem works to introduce Harlem youth to the building blocks of entrepreneurship. The company’s Apps Youth Leadership Academy provides a seven-week summer course where students learn to code and design websites and apps.

“This is a new world we’re living in,” said Brian Benjamin, the chair of Community Board 10, who invited the co-founders of Silicon Harlem to speak at the meeting. “If we don’t have our next generation on top of technology, they will be left behind.”

Dailey said adults like her could also benefit from Silicon Harlem’s programs, especially when it comes to growing her sandal business.

“Computers are the wave of the future,” Dailey said. “I want to be in the know.”