4 Westchester Cities Pave Way for High-Speed Internet

Increasingly, doing business in the 21st century means having ready access to high-speed broadband Internet, a fact of which the executives of Westchester’s four largest cities are only too well aware. High-speed Internet is key, which is why the mayors of Yonkers, White Plains, Mount Vernon, and New Rochelle are taking bold steps to bring it here.

“It’s an absolute necessity,” says Brooks Ross, president of Leggiadro, a string of women’s fashion stores that moved offices from Manhattan to 65 Main Street in Yonkers. “It should be considered a basic utility at this point.”

But Yonkers, New Rochelle, Mount Vernon, and White Plains are taking the service further than most, thanks largely to the Westchester County Association (WCA). The business group has rounded up the leaders of all four cities, which have a combined population of 408,000, to collaborate in bringing super-fast 1-gigabit-per-second broadband service to their communities.

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The idea of lightning-fast Internet as a business draw was pioneered by Chattanooga, TN, in 2010. Now it’s spreading around the nation like wildfire, seen as the next big thing for its potential to revolutionize healthcare, education, and even civic infrastructure, including everything from the way students learn to how smoothly traffic is ushered through a congested intersection.

“Increasingly, almost all businesses will demand high-speed broadband in the way they expect reliable electricity and running water,” says Noam Bramson, mayor of New Rochelle, which is in the midst of a major downtown-redevelopment program.

Gigabit broadband service can transmit 1,000 megabits of data per second — enough to download a movie in less than two minutes. That’s more than 58 times faster than the average US connection speed, which is 17.2 megabits, according to the State of the Internet report for late last year from Akamai, a content-delivery network that surveys connectivity. It’s almost 50 times faster than the New York State average connection speed of 20.6 megabits.

The super-fast service has certain marquee applications. In healthcare, it can boost telemedicine — the ability to “visit” a doctor or nurse remotely — which is now in its infancy, explains Jack Wolf, senior vice president and chief information officer for Montefiore Health System. The Montefiore network includes hospitals in White Plains, New Rochelle, and Mount Vernon. With telemedicine, a healthcare provider can monitor in real time the weight, blood pressure, and other information of a patient. “That type of interaction will be paramount in the coming years,” Wolf says.

The mayors of New Rochelle, White Plains, Mount Vernon, and Yonkers gathered at a press conference in October to discuss the 1-gig Internet to be deployed in those cities.

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Photo by Paul Adler

Major healthcare institutions will be able to communicate better with small offices of affiliated doctors, transmitting large data files, such as radiology images.

Souped-up Internet service also makes it easier for people to work outside the office. By 2020, 34 percent of the workforce will work remotely, says Joan McDonald, a former New York State transportation commissioner who is the WCA’s strategic advisor on the gigabit project. Mayor Mike Spano of Yonkers believes the flexibility will make the city even more attractive to companies. It can expand on the innovations and freedoms that wireless Internet has already brought to businesses, making things like telecommuting and off-site work sessions even more viable because of the super-efficient processing speed. This, in turn, lets companies in these cities attract a larger pool of qualified candidates.

On the street, motorists may notice that an intersection known as a traffic headache is moving more smoothly than before, as the traffic light seems to “know” where the backup is and adjusts to allow those cars and trucks more time. They may see traffic lights adjust to offer clear passage for a fire truck or an ambulance.

“It’s probably going to be the largest transformation in the history of Westchester County, in terms of the breakthroughs that will be made in the medical world, healthcare world, and education,” says William M. Mooney Jr., president and CEO of the WCA. “The day-to-day life of consumers will be transformed by this.”

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Designated as the “Smart Cities ComPACT,” the agreement signed by the WCA and the four cities initiated a planning process that is expected to take 15–18 months to implement. Many questions remain about how it will be executed, paid for and what the final cost will be to the public. McDonald says funding may involve a public-private partnership, with Internet providers pitching in some of the money, supplemented by state and federal grants.

“The technology is changing so rapidly that we don’t want to dictate what it will be,” McDonald says.

The price tag for the project is hard to pin down. At heavily attended roundtables held in New Rochelle, White Plains, and Yonkers, the WCA estimated the project could cost as much as $750 million, perhaps more.

However it’s done, proponents say it can turn a city’s fortunes around, including a post-industrial burg like Chattanooga. In 2010, the Tennessee city of 170,000 became the first in the US to make gigabit Internet service accessible across the entire city grid. A 2015 study by a local finance professor showed that the fiber-optic network had generated up to $1.3 billion in economic and social benefits and had created 2,800 to 5,200 new jobs, according to the city-owned power utility.

Since Chattanooga became “Gig City,” gigabit broadband has spread. By January 2013, more than 40 communities in 14 states had adopted the lightening-fast speed, and the FCC’s chairman at the time, Julius Genachowski, issued his “Gigabit City Challenge,” calling for an at least 1-gigabit community in every state.

Yet 1-gigabit service is not the limit. In 2015, five years after Chattanooga announced its initiative, it began offering 10-gigabit service. WCA representatives shared that the delivery speed may well exceed 1 gig by the time it’s fully operational here.

Mandu Sen, a program manager with the Regional Plan Association, a Manhattan-based organization that researches and advocates on urban and planning issues, says gigabit service will soon be a necessity.

“We’re worried about the places not preparing for this,” Sen says. “That future is really at our doorstep.”

For now, the WCA effort focuses on the four cities — a situation not everyone is happy with.

Greenburgh Town Supervisor Paul Feiner, for instance, is disappointed that his town, which spreads across much of central Westchester and contains a population of 90,000, is not included.

Feiner notes that regional biotech companies, such as Regeneron Pharmaceuticals and Acorda Therapeutics — both within Greenburgh’s borders — could benefit. If nothing else, he adds, the commerce-heavy Central Avenue corridor should be included because of its location, stretching from White Plains to Yonkers. He adds that gigabit service on both ends would give an unfair boost to those sections if the Greenburgh portion in the middle couldn’t join in.

“I feel that leaving Greenburgh out is putting us at a competitive disadvantage,” he says.

Mooney points out that municipalities that participate later will benefit from the work the WCA and the four cities are doing now.

Gigabit service can also be a force in closing the “digital divide,” which leaves students in lower-income families with no home Internet service at a disadvantage when it comes to homework and research projects for school.

“Some of these kids can’t go home and do their homework,” Mooney says. “This will create access for them.”

Adds McDonald: “The vision everyone [has] is that Westchester is no longer a New York City bedroom community. Westchester is a power and a place unto itself.”

New Rochelle-based writer Ken Valenti has covered many aspects of life and business in all corners of Westchester County.

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