Can a downtown rock impresario, digital music business pioneer, and IT education Johnny Appleseed take a moribund political office and make it work the way it’s supposed to? Andrew Rasiej thinks so. He’d like to do for the New York City Public Advocate’s post what Eliot Spitzer’s done for the state Attorney General’s desk. Where many see an office worth not much more than a pitcher of warm spit, Rasiej sees an opportunity to wire New York for universal WiFi access.
“Time Warner, Verizon, and Cablevision are gouging New York for high-speed internet access,” says Rasiej, estimating that the profiteering clocks in at about 400 million every year.
He’s also worried the city’s broadband capacity ranks behind not only San Francisco, but 16 other major American cities. He’s embarrassed, frankly, that access to government information is coming online more rapidly in India than it is here. His favorite stump slogan is “making access to information a civil right.” He’s running against incumbent Betsy Gotbaum, former ACLU executive director Norman Siegel, and a handful of longshot candidates in the September 13 Democratic primary, because he thinks the Public Advocate’s office might be just the right place to shake up a city government he calls “asleep at the wheel when it comes to technology.”
At the center of Rasiej’s campaign is his plan to build the city a comprehensive WiFi network, and then charge about $20 a month to use it for connection speeds exceeding DSL and Cable. Students, park-goers, and subway riders could connect for free. Rasiej reasons if Philadelphia is already implementing a similar WiFi plan, then New York ought to be capable of making it happen.
Besides cheaper broadband and plugged in students, Rasiej points out several public safety benefits of universal WiFi: “It would give firefighters anywhere in the city the ability to download the blueprints of a burning building on the way to a fire. Residents would have the ability to get information and communicate instantly with first responders during a disaster or terror attack — including underground in the subway.”
Rasiej would also use the network for long-overdue real-time updates on subway and bus arrivals. He estimates the plan would cost the city about a quarter of what the dead West Side Stadium proposal would have. (Roughly $80 million, or $10/per tax payer)
Gotbaum call’s Rasiej’s WiFi proposal beyond the purview of the Public Advocate’s job and thinks the money could be better spent elsewhere. Rasiej counters that Gotbaum’s allowed the office to lapse into irrelevancy — citing her mere 33 percent name recognition citywide in a recent poll — and argues his proposed WiFi network would pay for itself with consumer cost savings and increased government efficiency.
You can’t fault the man for lack of vision. But can you accuse the 47-year-old, first-time politician of being an Al Gore-style internet poseur?
Investigative business journalist Adam L. Pennenberg says no. Pennenberg, whose techie bona fides include blowing the lid off the Segue invention, investigating the successful hacking of India’s premiere nuclear facility, and busting serial fabricator Stephen Glass, began a May interview with Rasiej with the caveat: “It was inevitable. At some point one of us — and by that I mean someone with a clue about technology — would run for political office.”
Beyond the centerpiece WiFi proposal, the smart use of technology is at the heart of Rasiej’s election strategy. His campaign website features a video blog with clips cut to music by Sleater-Kinney, Beck, Badly Drawn Boy and the White Stripes. He’s the first city politico to buy an ad on Flavorpill. He recently completed a guest-posting stint at liberal blogosphere heavyweight Talking Points Memo Café. His campaign logo uses the classic Tennessee Valley Authority design of a raised fist clinching a lightning bolt: Replacing the TVA’s “Electricity for All” slogan is the campaign motto “Connecting New York City.”