MANHATTAN (CN) – Even New Yorkers who never heard of the Empire City Subway may recognize its manhole covers stamped with “ECS,” but the city’s opaque relationship with the Verizon subsidiary that has a monopoly on conduits makes its Internet access lag behind Chattanooga’s, a Harvard researcher claims in court.
Plaintiff Professor Susan Crawford, author of “Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age,” served in former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Advisory Council on Technology and Innovation.
She is digging into the city’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunication’s records on Empire City Subway, a company founded in 1891 that she says has “exclusive authority to construct, maintain and lease underground conduits in portions of New York City.”
The Verizon New York subsidiary’s 124-year-old agreement with the city to construct, maintain and rent conduits in Manhattan and the Bronx has never been revised, Crawford says in her July 10 complaint in New York County Supreme Court.
Conduits are the pipes through which Internet cables run, and a 2010 report from New York City’s former Comptroller John Liu found ECS’s stewardship of them “ disturbing .”
In 2008, ECS built 1,026 new conduits and left 721 vacant; 277 were occupied by its parent company Verizon and only 28 by other tenants, according to the audit report.
And this was an improvement from 2007, when other vendors got only four of the 1,484 newly built conduits, Liu found.
In a memo accompanying her lawsuit , Crawford said that more than a quarter of New Yorkers do not have high-speed Internet access, and the Bronx has the lowest rate of the five boroughs, at 34 percent.
Liu’s successor Scott Stringer found that black and Latino New Yorkers bore the brunt of slow speeds and lack of access in his December 2014 report, “ Internet Inequality .” The report compared Internet speed in the Big Apple unfavorably with those “from Seoul and Paris to Kansas City and Chattanooga.”
A Verizon spokesman told Courthouse News: “While it is true that ECS’s franchise covers mainline conduit (i.e., conduit running between manholes) in Manhattan and the Bronx, it also requires us to provide qualified third parties with access to that conduit on an as-needed basis – which is what ECS has been doing for over 100 years. So the existing structure isn’t hindering competition.
“With respect to the information sought in the legal action, making such information public could create serious security concerns for NYC’s critical information technology infrastructure, and it would also involve disclosure of information about ECS’s tenants.”
Crawford’s May 9, 2014 Freedom of Information Law request sought 23 categories of information about the company, including its agreement with the city, audits of its performance, its financial records, and the number of conduits it owns.
A partial response came on Nov. 21, and the city delivered the remaining records on Jan. 30, but Crawford says they are riddled with redactions on occupancy and availability of underground conduit in Manhattan and the Bronx.
In one instance, the city claimed that Internet service providers that rented conduit were “tenants” of ECS could not be disclosed because they were “trade secrets,” and that releasing the information would cause “substantial injury to the competitive position of the subject enterprise,” according to Crawford’s 6-page complaint.
Crawford’s correspondence with the city’s requests access counsel is included in the 38 pages of attachments to her lawsuit.
The city’s refusal to release the information violates the city’s freedom of information law, “impedes competition for telecommunications services and defeats the public interest,” Crawford says.
David Schulz, with Yale Law School’s Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic, blamed the secrecy for New York’s “high cost and poor quality of high-speed internet.”
Crawford wants to see the records, and attorneys’ fees.
New York City and Verizon New York did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
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