ALBANY — The heightened reliance on distance learning, the shift to telecommuting by many employers and the expansion of telemedicine have combined to highlight the gaps in high-speed broadband coverage in many communities in upstate New York.
In 2015, Gov. Andrew Cuomo vowed that high-speed internet connectivity would be available to all New Yorkers by the end of 2018.
While progress has been made, gaps remain. Lawmakers say they will do more this year to encourage communications companies to complete the buildout.
State Sen. George Borrello, R-Sunset Bay, said the state has been relying on misleading data that shows 98 percent of households in the state now have access to broadband.
He cited a national survey completed in December by Common Sense Media, an education advocacy organization based in San Francisco, that indicated 27% of New York school children in grades kindergarten through 12 reside in homes without internet service. That amounts to 726,000 students.
Borrello, along with Senate GOP Leader Rob Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, and state Sen. Pam Helming, R-Geneva, are advocating for the repeal of a fee on fiber optic cable installation along state road rights-of-way. The fee, quietly slipped into the state's 2019-2020 budget, has been "killing projects" that, if completed, would have allowed more New Yorkers, especially families in rural communities, to acquire broadband service, Borrello said.
Borrello was the lead sponsor of another measure that called for a statewide study by the Public Service Commission to create maps of localities that have no broadband access and to produce a report on the affordability and reliability of internet service throughout New York. The bill was approved by the Senate and the Assembly last summer.
Cuomo rejected the measure through a pocket veto last month, with the administration questioning the cost and signaling there are plans for addressing the need for a study later this year.
Meanwhile, Borrello said he is taking aim at what he called an "unnecessary" mandate by the state Department of Transportation that cable installers conduct new surveys before stringing cable along existing utility poles.
"The wounds to broadband access in New York are self-inflicted," the senator said.
In the North Country, Assemblyman D. Billy Jones, D-Plattsburgh, said he was disappointed that the legislation paving the way for a statewide broadband study was blocked.
"The state is saying we have 98% coverage, but we know that's not true," he said.
The increased reliance on remote instruction during the pandemic has underscored the importance of expanding access to digital technology, he said. "We need to get broadband to the people who need it."
In releasing his 2021 agenda in January, Cuomo called for making broadband affordable by requiring providers to offer $15-per-month service for low-income households. The governor also discussed enlisting the aid of a philanthropic endowment to create a fund that could offer assistance to households that could not afford to pay $15 for monthly service.
Rebecca Watts, regional vice president of Western Governors University, a Salt Lake City college which specializes in online instruction, said it's appropriate that New York is focusing on both infrastructure needs and putting the cost of broadband within the reach of consumers.
She also said it's important that states make an effort to understand the specific needs within various regions to find the best solutions for expanding coverage.
"There needs to be collaboration by all levels of government," Watts said. "This is a huge huge challenge to make sue you are not just putting out a solution that meets the needs of some but does not meet the needs of all — because then you are still left with a digital divide between the haves and the have-nots."
One potential solution worth exploring is to provide incentives for competition in the broadband industry, giving consumers a choice and motivating companies to keep pace with cutting-edge technology, said Assemblyman Angelo Morinello, R-Niagara Falls.
There are also promising developments with satellite technology that could help address the problem of extending coverage to places that are so remote companies have avoided installing pole-to-pole lines, Morinello said.
"If we don't encourage competition, we are not going to be progressing as far as we should be with accessible broadband for everyone," the assemblyman said.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at email@example.com