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The New York City Mayor's Race: Analog Candidates in a Digital World

BY Nick Judd | Tuesday, June 18 2013

At one point in a mayoral candidates' forum last night at Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, Anthony Weiner, the former congressman known for his pugilistic rhetorical style, had to follow City Comptroller John Liu, former Councilman Sal Albanese and former Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrión Jr. on the subject of better broadband Internet access in the city.

It was an exchange typical over the course of the night for exposing how little potential candidates for mayor actually know about policies that will have lasting effects for one of the city's most important growth industries.

Liu and Carrión both had experience with the city's Franchise Concession and Review Committee, which trades access to city right-of-way for exclusive rights to sell cable and Internet service and has done so in recent years as access to high-speed broadband becomes a critical stumbling block for the city's growing Internet technology industry. Both advocated for more competition in the city.

"The barriers to entry of laying down coaxial cable in an entire city, or laying down telephone lines in an entire city are enormous," Weiner said, in 2013, as cities across the country are more interested in fiber-optic cable, which is far faster, than they are in coax. "That's why the system is structured the way it is albeit something that was started in the 1970s. The reason they had to do it, the reason we made a decision to do this as a city is we said if we want someone to make this investment we basically have to guarantee them a captive audience. That's largely changed now. Let's face it we could be sitting here in 20 years and cable and DSL could be anachronistic in and of themselves. We could be reaching a place that the entire broadband access is entirely cellular or some other way."

It wasn't that Weiner was wrong on technology — it's just that he was clearly right by accident, making educated guesses based on firsthand knowledge that is now years out of date.

Perhaps operating on the premise that it was more important to be remembered than to be remembered fondly, the former congressman also impressed himself on the audience by saying later on that Uber "will never be a success in New York City." Later still, he practically scolded a questioner asking about 3-D printing — totally reasonable in a city which plays host to Shapeways and Makerbot — by saying Makerbot sounded like something they'd serve in a "Williamsburg bar."

The rest of the field, except for Liu, who had left to meet another commitment, followed suit — dismissing the question because of the questioner's name (given as Land Grant) and, likely, because it was getting late. But taken as an example of what each candidate would do if, as mayor, he was confronted with a novel or unfamiliar idea, it's not encouraging.

It's also not surprising behavior for candidates who pack as much as they can into every day before primary day. But if New York techies (yes, Adolfo, that word is okay) came to Queens Monday night expecting to be shown respect and consideration by people competing for their vote, they left wanting. (Two heavyweight candidates, Council Speaker Christine Quinn and former Comptroller William Thompson Jr., did not show up.)

Weiner wasn't the only one who swung and missed.

In fact, New York City is a test case for a new technology called "microtrenching" that could greatly reduce the costs and barrier to entry for new fiber-optic infrastructure and enable what's called "fiber-to-the-home" — fiber-optic cable all the way up to individual buildings, increasing potential speeds by at least an order of magnitude beyond what is now available.

Liu, who came late and left early, slyly referred to "fiber" after Weiner's analog remarks — letting people know that he was a little bit more with it. And on procurement, the current comptroller — whose office sees every check cut by the city before it goes out — smartly characterized the issue of turgid budgets for city technology projects by observing, "it actually doesn't have much to do with technology itself."

The issue, he noted, is with the structure of contracts and oversight — as he put it, consultants overseeing consultants overseeing consultants, overseeing consultants.

Only the current mayor has sought to address that problem by establishing a new city corporation that will oversee large-dollar city technology projects.

Carrión put points on the board by saying he used an "Airbnb-like" service to schedule a family trip to Barcelona, explaining that regulations could be built to make something similar work in New York. (A recent court case found an Airbnb user to have violated the law here by renting out his apartment for a few days, and cities across the country are trying to make sense of similar services in the "sharing economy.")

"It's very good for them," he said. "I believe it could be good for us."

So does the current mayor, who partnered with Airbnb last year to help find housing for people impacted by Hurricane Sandy.

Albanese suggested that he'd back a deputy mayor for innovation, a title that has a rough equivalent already in the city but which Rahul Merchant holds while also being commissioner of the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications.

Anyone who suggests that Monday night's display showed a real grasp of technology on the part of candidates for mayor is mistaken. But that's not necessarily surprising or really concerning. Whenever any of the four candidates could apply general knowledge about how policies and regulations worked without needing any grasp of how the Internet works on any level, they managed to score a few points. All four had fairly standard but unoffensive things to say about better science, technology, engineering and math education. And while franchise agreements are a convenient bête noir — they won't expire until July 2020 — that they came up at all is a signal that some common policy consensus is starting to trickle into the city's political establishment.

On technology issues, it's fair to say that the mayor doesn't need to be technologically savvy. The next mayor of New York will need a strong technology policy team led by a great manager who that mayor has empowered on the likely chance that it will make him, or probably her, look good.

Monday night, hosted by the Coalition for Queens and a smattering of local Democratic and technology groups, wasn't about showing which mayoral candidate knows the most about technology. It was about showing which candidate has the combination of temperament, intellect and leadership skill to work with the city's technology community and lead global a city in the 21st century. That's a test no candidate for mayor of New York has passed so far.

My colleague Miranda Neubauer has compiled a Storify of tweets from the event:

This post has been corrected. It briefly implied that Rahul Merchant held, among other things, the title of deputy mayor for innovation. He is the city's Chief Innovation and Information Officer, which is close but not quite.