Leaving some behind

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Through the New NY Broadband Program established in 2015, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said that more than 99 percent of state residents would have access to high-speed internet.

The initiative launched with a $500 million investment. A substantial number of New Yorkers have been provided access to high-speed internet over the past five years, according to the website for the state Broadband Program Office.

“In 2015, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo established the $500 million New NY Broadband Program (‘the Program’), the nation’s largest and most ambitious state investment in broadband expansion. The Program provides state grant funding through an innovative ‘reverse auction’ method to support projects that deliver high-speed internet access to unserved and underserved areas of New York state at speeds of 100 megabits-per-second (Mbps) in most areas and 25 Mbps in the most remote areas,” the website reported. “Nearly 90 percent of all funding has been awarded to projects that will address unserved areas of the state, connecting these locations for the first time. When the New NY Broadband Program was launched, 30 percent of New Yorkers — approximately 2.42 million locations — lacked access to broadband. This lack of broadband coverage was most acute in the eight upstate [Regional Economic Development Council] Regions. As a result of the Program’s Round I awards and additional state-secured upgrades, broadband access was expanded by more than 2.2 million locations to 97 percent of New Yorkers. Round II awards then extended coverage to more than 80,000 locations, to 98 percent of New Yorkers. Round III awards accomplish the Program’s mission of statewide broadband availability — addressing the balance of New Yorkers without access.”

More than two years ago, Mr. Cuomo announced the third round of grants to provide “the last mile funding to ensure high-speed internet access for all New Yorkers,” according to a Jan. 31, 2018, news release from the governor’s office. He set an ambitious goal, and we believe it’s worth pursuing. So we commend the state in making this investment toward ensuring that as many New Yorkers as possible have access to broadband and fiber optic internet.

But these projects have been hampered with some significant problems. One has been the failure of some vendors to complete the work they pledged to carry out. And state residents have been hit hard by this development.

Another obstacle to high-speed internet access is a tax on fiber optic installers who build lines on state-controlled infrastructure. The state Legislature halted some projects from moving forward in various regions by passing a right of way tax/use and occupancy fee on fiber optic lines.

There are questions about the true number of households assisted through the New NY Broadband Program. The state Assembly and Senate passed a bill (A.6679B/S.5696) calling on the Public Service Commission to conduct a thorough review of high-speed internet access throughout New York. This would show where problems exist and, thus, offering guidance on how to overcome these issues.

“While recently there have been significant and positive efforts to expand high-speed internet infrastructure, many areas of the state still do not have sufficient access to broadband services, in particular fiber optic service. A recent study found that 8.7 million New Yorkers are not accessing the internet at high-speed rates. Less than half of the population in rural communities in the state have usage at internet speeds of at least 25 Mbps download, with some areas as low as almost 15 percent for 25 Mbps internet speed usage. Even in areas of the state with high-speed internet access, there is usually only one company that provides this internet service. This monopoly can lead to a lack of innovation by internet service providers and leaves customers with no alternative option in cases where the ISP overcharges for services or underdelivers on its product,” according to the state Senate’s version of the bill. “Affordable access to high-speed internet is critical to the revitalization of rural communities and to the health, well-being and quality of life of all New Yorkers. Without access to high-speed internet, New York families are unable to access an essential service for work, school and daily activities. The digital divide deprives underserved communities of educational and economic opportunities, and prevents communities lacking sufficient health care services from taking advantage of advances in telemedicine. This legislation, building off of the efforts in the recent past, is intended to close the gap and help ensure that all New Yorkers have access to this vital service.”

While the legislation passed both the state Assembly and Senate in July, Mr. Cuomo has yet to sign it into law. Various organizations are urging him to do so. They include AARP New York, Communications Workers of America and the Public Utility Law Project.

The novel coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated these troubles.

Some students have been forced to do their homework in the parking lots of their schools because they don’t have adequate online services at home. Patients who use tele-health services don’t always understand the full advice their doctors give them due to poor connections.

This also can deter economic development. Companies may opt not to locate to communities with no high-speed internet.

Evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of providing this service throughout the state is critical to understanding what needs to be done to make Mr. Cuomo’s vision become a reality. He should sign this bill immediately and jump-start the effort to make high-speed internet available to everyone.

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