Among those in attendance at the Mayoral Candidates Tech Forum hosted by the Coalition for Queens were entrepreneurs eager to learn what participants Sal Albanese, John Liu, Adolfo Carrión Jr. and Anthony Weiner had to say about tech policy, STEM education, fiber connectivity and workforce development in the city. After nearly two hours of discussion, the NYC startup community definitely got a reminder of all the hurdles they face, but no one stood out as that coach to teach them how to navigate them.
“What I really wanted to hear was a specific plan for how to turn the tech community and tech industry in NY into a cornerstone industry and the sense that I got is that they know that if they put in broadband they know it’ll happen, but they don’t know what it’ll take to make that happen,” said Nilay Patel, moderator and managing editor at the Verge. He added, however, that while specificity was lacking, awareness of the problems were not.
For instance, John Liu was more than aware of the many dead spots for phone service that plague the city. “I’m not going to even mention the service I use,” he said to an introductory question, which asked all the candidates to name their phone, favorite app and service provider.
Liu, along with other candidates, continued to vent their frustrations on the quality of tech services in the city, focusing their attentions on the monopolies held by Verizon and Time Warner Cable. Carrión Jr. mentioned a need to revisit these 20-year franchise agreements that the city holds with them and “figure out ways to open competition.” One of the few agreeable and executable ideas that the candidates suggested was bringing about more transparency and oversight to dealing with these companies and their contracts. Recognizing the power that the companies have with these current agreements, Weiner said that the companies should create “tangible give backs” to the city, such as offering free wi-fi in public spaces.
Broadband accessibility wasn’t the only thing noted as disrupting the growth of the tech center. Sal Albanese mentioned his meetings with the entrepreneur “hipsters” of Brooklyn. “They tell me that they would love to have their start-ups in Williamsburg, but they have to go to SoHo, they have to go to Manhattan because it’s not zoned for office space.” The same goes for Long Island City, which is mostly zoned for luxury apartments, according to Weiner, thus leaving little office space for those trying to be a part of the growing western Queens tech community. Entrepreneurs should be happy to note that Albanese also supports providing free space for startups, but there was no mention of where the city would get the budget for that.
While there are certainly many startups that must pass through red tape just to get space, some already in existence are “disrupting” existing industries and walking that fine line of legality. The moderators thus asked the candidates how they would manage regulations with those new startups. Currently, Aereo is being sued, Uber had to fight with the city to exist and Airbnb made headlines worldwide for its legal issues with the City.
The candidates seemed well aware of these companies, with Carrión Jr. having used the service during a family trip to Spain. He noted that the city, with its low hotel vacancy rate, could benefit from such a program but that, in order to do that, we must again, revisit our rules. “The question is what are the smart line-use policies without making living unsafe, without disrupting neighborhoods to allow this kind of activity to take place. So, it’s a case by case basis, but this evolution has to happen rather quickly.”
The mere existence of a tech forum for the mayoral debate is itself an example of the city’s evolving nature. And as Albanese noted, there are clear solutions to all these tech problems, but the question becomes, “Will the political class act to do it?” For Albanese, as well as the other candidates, taking action involves a way to increase engagement with the public so that the government doesn’t become corrupted by special interests like big business.
Coincidentally, after the forum I spoke with Mickey Costa, co-founder of the soon-to-be launched FundElevator.com, which seeks to provide a space for candidates to present their views, so the public can have a chance to figure out who they wish to fund.
“It’s a place to say what (the solution) is, why you want to do it, and how are you going to do it.” Notice the emphasis on the how. It’s what was lacking in this tech forum, and what a NYC startup is bringing as their solution to the problem.