The Campaign to Rebuild New York’s Data Infrastructure Comes to NYTM

12/5/13Follow @jpruth

New York’s innovation scene has a number of things going its way—from investors with deep pockets to mature industries ripe for disruption. Yet access to robust data connections, vital to the development of many startups, is catch-as-catch-can here.

At last night’s New York Tech Meetup, a huge monthly gathering that features tech demos, the issue landed under the spotlight. In fact, the data access quandary brought out a political heavyweight.

Early into the event, Sen. Charles “Chuck” Schumer went on stage to drum up support for improving Wi-Fi availability across the city. Data connectivity, Schumer said, is a vital part of the local tech community’s prosperity.

That was just one of the topics the senator addressed relating to innovation. He said while the first wave of tech innovation—which blossomed in Silicon Valley—was about hardware meeting software, the second wave is about applying hardware and software to practical situations. New York, he said, has an opportunity to be a leader on that front.

But to foster more growth, Schumer said, the city needs to improve its technology infrastructure in order to attract more engineers and other talented professionals. He proposed tackling the matter through public and private efforts. “Why shouldn’t we have Wi-Fi everywhere in New York?” he asked.

Schumer beseeched the audience, filled with tech heads who naturally want better connectivity, to come up with ways to make such improvements feasible.

It was probably no coincidence that among last night’s demos was a service called WiredNYC, which spoke directly to the connectivity problem. Launched by outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration, WiredNYC rates the broadband service at properties.

“New York City is behind the curve in providing best-in-class Internet connectivity to our buildings,” said Arie Barendrecht, executive director of WiredNYC. “That is going to affect the way our businesses run and grow.” He said the problem persists, in part, because landlords do not fully grasp how crucial broadband service is for productivity. That can lead, Barendrecht said, to some landlords not being upfront about spotty data speeds in their buildings. “The end result is we sign leases for office space without truly understanding how good the Internet connectivity is,” he said.

WiredNYC was set up, Barendrecht said, to put the matter front and center by scoring buildings based on their data connections. Would-be tenants can look up WiredNYC’s ratings of properties’ Internet accessibility and quality at Wiredscore.com, he said.

Getting rated by the service is voluntary; properties that do not participate do not have scores. However, Barendrecht hopes that more requests by the public for this information will push landlords to get on board—and improve connectivity in their buildings or risk turning off tenants.

Data access was not the only topic Schumer dove into last night. He tried to relate the national discussion on immigration reform to the city’s prospects for innovation. In particular, Schumer said legislation he is backing would let more students from abroad stay stateside after they graduate. “We have so much talent that comes here and studies, and [then] we send them home,” he said. “It makes no sense.”

Schumer believes the federal legislation he and Sen. John McCain have been pushing can change that trend. “You get an MA or Ph.D. in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math], you get a green card attached to your diploma,” Schumer said. The legislation would also triple the number of H-1B visas, he said.

Patent reform was also on Schumer’s mind last night. He has been pitching legislation he believes would help startups cope with patent trolls, who tend to target companies too small to defend themselves. Rather than costly, lengthy legal battles, which might crush startups, he proposes using quick administrative procedures to resolve patent disputes. “Ninety-five percent of these suits have no validity and will be thrown out before you have to spend a nickel for a lawyer,” he said.

João-Pierre S. Ruth is the editor of Xconomy New York. He can be reached at jpruth@xconomy.com and followed on Twitter @jpruth. Follow @jpruth

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