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Will Newark’s Firebolt bridge the digital divide?

Will Newark’s Firebolt bridge the digital divide?

By Michael L. Diamond

Jhamar Youngblood was working furiously in a friend’s apartment on an idea for a mobile app one day last spring when the Internet service went out. Most other times and most other places, Youngblood’s blood would have boiled. After all, it’s tough enough for a minority in the inner city to build a technology company. Now he didn’t have Internet access?

His friend, Darrian Collins, suggested they just walk over to Military Park, where the city had rolled out high-speed, outdoor Wi-Fi service for free.

“It was fast,” Youngblood, 27, says. “It was better than his apartment.”

Newark has partnered with two of its major corporations, Audible and Prudential Financial, to introduce Firebolt, billed as the nation’s fastest, free, outdoor Wi-Fi network. With it, Newark joins the new space race among U.S. cities trying to put themselves on the high-tech map. But it could do more than that. City advocates think it will give Newark an edge as it tries to recruit high-tech companies. And they think it will give low-income residents access to what has become a utility, bridging the digital divide.

If it works, more Jhamar Youngbloods will emerge, so many more that they won’t have to go to New York City or San Francisco to raise the money they need. They can stay in Newark.

“It’s not a question of should you be doing this, “ says Seth Wainer, Newark’s chief technology officer. “It’s, are you doing this fast enough to keep up with other cities?”

Youngblood (right) grew up here, his time spent between his father’s place in Elizabeth and his mother’s in Newark. By the time he was in graduate school at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, he stumbled across a problem in the social media age. He went to Facebook and Twitter, asked if anyone wanted to play tennis with him, and got no response.

Youngblood is awfully engaging; it’s unlikely he’d have trouble finding a tennis partner. But he figured that people follow so many friends, co-workers, acquaintances and so on that single posts can easily get overlooked.

His idea: Blastchat, a mobile messaging app that allows you to send whatever – funny stories, daily deals, tennis invitations – to a group of people and get individual responses. Kind of like the blind carbon copy function on your email, only on your phone. Youngblood started Blastchat last year with money from friends and family and in recent months has led a high-tech entrepreneurial life. It is decidedly less glamorous than it sounds. He stays with friends, bouncing from couch to couch in Brooklyn and Newark, trying to make the one key connection that can send his company into the stratosphere.

His office is wherever he is at a given moment. And on that day last spring, it was Military Park, where he and Collins not only had free Wi-Fi, but also access to the park’s electrical outlets, tables and chairs, and Ping-Pong tables that seem to be a staple of technology workplaces everywhere. Open space is all the rage in today’s offices. Can’t get more open than this.

“It felt like our own personal headquarters,” Youngblood says.

Funded by the Military Park Partnership, Audible.com and Prudential Financial, Firebolt serves a two-mile long stretch of downtown Newark that includes Military Park, Washington Park and Rutgers University, Newark. It’s also available at nine community centers and the Newark Housing Authority.

Newark itself had the components in place to make it work, Brian Duddy, Audible’s vice president of global real estate infrastructure, points out. It had access to: A building at 165 Halsey Street, which has become a center where Internet traffic is exchanged among different carrier networks; Ackrion Inc., which developed a custom solution; PSE&G’s utility poles, which were equipped with Wi-Fi access points; and, of course, parks and community centers.

With it comes blazing speed that businesses and consumers need today to connect to each other. At up to 300 Megabytes per second, users can stream two high-definition videos and still be able to surf the Internet, Duddy says. “Today, we routinely use applications such as Facetime, Skype and similar services to connect with colleagues, friends and family wherever we are. Without high-speed capabilities, video quality is poor and users experience frequent disconnects or frozen pictures.”

Community leaders think Firebolt can help Newark join an elite group of cities on the front line of the digital age. One twist: They aren’t the cities that first come to mind when you think about those on the cutting edge. Instead, Wainer points to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where the city used $111 million that it received from the U.S. government’s 2009 stimulus package to help its municipal electric utility offer high-speed Internet access to households. It gives those cities an economic advantage. Every facet of the creative economy—and these days, everything is part of the creative economy—needs the bandwidth to support it, Wainer says.

“The 21st century economy demands a 21st century communications infrastructure,” says Jon Whiten, a spokesman for New Jersey Policy Perspective, a think tank. “Anything less puts economic opportunities at risk.”

Firebolt fills another gap. More than 32 percent of Newark households don’t have Internet access, compared with the U.S. median of 21.1 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey in 2013. The digital divide leaves the have-nots cloistered from the rest of the world. Answers to virtually any question are a Google search or YouTube video away.

“I want to create a setting where it’s fun to be computer literate,” says Dr. David Jefferson (right) of the Metropolitan Baptist Church.

Growing up, Jhamar Youngblood says the only African American in popular culture who was skilled in science, technology, engineering and math was Steve Urkel, the over-the-top nerdy character on Family Matters. Who would aspire to that?

Youngblood’s mother bought a computer in the late 1990s, the only one in their Clifton Avenue building with Internet access. Youngblood himself was a good enough basketball player that he got a scholarship to Monmouth University in West Long Branch. He wanted to major in computer sciences, too, but when he walked into the lab, he said he felt out of place among the overwhelmingly white students; he majored in finance instead. But he was drawn to technology. While he didn’t major in computer science, he knew enough about how to do research on the Internet that he could learn enough about technology that he could develop Blastchat.

Firebolt isn’t a cure all. Youngblood packed up his things in Military Park once the weather got cold, and he searched for a new place not only to set up shop, but also to meet people who can improve and fund his company. If that’s New York City or San Francisco, so be it.

But he wants Blastchat to be a Newark company. And maybe one day he can point to Firebolt as the fuel that kept it going in a pinch.

“My hope is just showing a group of people that grew up like me, that look like me, that building a tech company is possible,” Youngblood says. “I think that’s my No. 1 goal. If I can do it in the city where I grew up, I think that’s way better.

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