Making a final push to get everyone in New York online

There are a few corners of New York state that still need broadband access.

The state is working on solving both the affordability and accessibility issues with broadband service.

The state is working on solving both the affordability and accessibility issues with broadband service. Alex Potemkin/Getty Images

For the past eight years, there has been an intense push to bring reliable, affordable broadband internet to every person and every corner of New York state.

Beginning with former Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s New NY Broadband Program in 2015, and now continuing with Gov. Kathy Hochul’s ConnectALL program, more than $1.5 billion in state money has been committed to the cause, and significant progress has been made.

Since Cuomo first claimed that goal would be accomplished in fewer than three years, hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers have gained access to broadband, with more than 97.5% of households having access, according to the Public Service Commission. And, by most measures, New York remains far ahead of many states.

Still, advocates and lawmakers broadly agree that there is a great deal of work left to achieve that original goal: universal access – broadband internet with at least 25 megabits per second download speed and 3 megabits per second upload speed that is available and affordable to everyone in the state.

Joshua Breitbart, Hochul’s broadband director, is the point person on the ConnectALL program. He has touted the success of the program, pointing to the 1.5 million people who have enrolled in affordable internet programs, namely the federal Affordable Connectivity Program, since they began their push last year.

“We continue to build those partnerships and increase that awareness, provide those supports to continue making progress and make sure that all households that are eligible for this benefit are taking advantage of it,” Breitbart said.

But that brings the number to about 50% of eligible households enrolled, he said. That’s up from about 30% when they started. The remaining unenrolled households will likely be a bigger challenge because of language barriers and other obstacles.

“That means that there are still many more households to make aware of that (program),” he said.

Similarly, the remaining parts of the state where there is no permanent infrastructure in place are the most difficult and expensive regions to build out. Broad swaths of the Adirondack Park and other rural areas present difficult terrain for installation and maintenance. And the lack of density makes it less attractive financially for providers.

Assembly Member Carrie Woerner chairs the Libraries and Education Technology Committee. Her district just northeast of Schenectady still has many homes where wired broadband simply isn’t available, she said.

That lack of availability affects the quality of life for her current constituents and limits the ability of those communities to grow.

While she understands that there are many challenges, she believes the job won’t be done until every home in the state that has electricity and phone service also has a wired broadband connection.

“Broadband is a utility,” Woerner said. “We need to treat it that way and bring it to every household.”

Of the two main factors in accessibility – availability and affordability – more questions remain in figuring out how to get connections into every corner of the state. Both questions boil down to money. But solutions are more complex for providing broadband in the most challenging parts of the state.

Already, satellite and fixed wireless – wireless network signal emitters attached to buildings and utility poles – are being deployed in the most challenging areas of the state.

Mariya Zheleva, a professor of computer science at University at Albany who has studied connectivity gaps in rural communities in New York and abroad, said wireless and satellite solutions are imperfect. Satellite service is expensive and its reliability varies by provider. And fixed wireless solutions require open sight lines to send information to houses. That can be interrupted by weather, changing foliage or other factors. Still, they offer the most cost-effective and quick solution in unserved areas, and can be deployed while the state works on wired connections.

Convincing internet providers to go into these areas can be extremely difficult, as it can cost more than $10,000 to supply a connection to a single home in extreme cases, she said.

“It doesn’t provide the economic incentive to whoever is providing it to do it and then run it,” Zheleva said.

Internet access is often measured in terms of “haves and have-nots.” But sometimes having poor internet quality can be as bad or worse than not having it at all, Zheleva said.

“If you are underserved, that tends to not cut it for the type of services that the internet provides today,” she said. “You end up being stuck and being only able to access a small subsection of what the internet provides.”

For Woerner, wireless and satellite solutions were only acceptable as temporary fixes.

“It might be OK for the press release,” she said of counting those delivery methods toward total coverage numbers. “The reality is it doesn’t provide an appropriate level of service.”

If the state is committed, whether it be through the less reliable wireless and satellite options or the more costly wired connections, universal access is achievable, Zheleva said.

“The technology is there,” she said. “It is more an issue of funding, unfortunately, and maintaining and incentivizing providers to be investing into these areas.”

Compared to other states, New York is in an undeniably good position on internet access. It ranks among the highest in coverage, speed and affordability. BroadbandNow, an independent company that conducts broadband research, ranks New York as the fifth best state in the nation.

But the numbers, as is the case with other states, can still be misleading. Much of the data, including the heavily relied upon Federal Communications Commission data, is self-reported by internet service providers. Numerous studies, including one conducted by the state Public Service Commission found that internet companies were often overstating their coverage and the speed of the internet they were delivering to consumers.

State Sen. Sean Ryan, who chairs the Commerce, Economic Development and Small Business Committee, pushed as a member of the Assembly to have the commission do its own mapping of connections and check on speeds.

The Public Service Commission found that, not only were many addresses reported as connected not eligible for service, but that those with service were often without speeds that met the FCC standard.

“We figured out that, in addition to what we already knew, which was that big swaths didn’t have it, we also found that big swaths had really poor quality internet,” Ryan said.

And Microsoft released figures it had from its users that also showed far fewer homes using speeds that providers reported to the FCC.

Maria Doulis, the state’s deputy comptroller for budget and policy analysis, said that before the Public Service Commission report, the self-reported FCC data was the only comprehensive data set available. But the commission’s study and other numbers now show a more complicated, and less rosy, picture of speed rates and coverage from providers in New York and elsewhere, a fact that her office makes clear in its reports.

“The state has now taken it on itself to improve that data and be more granular and refined with that perspective,” Doulis said. “Now the state is potentially in a good place with this refined data and the allocation of federal funds to really develop a good strategy.”

While many families still feel the pinch of internet costs, especially as other costs like housing and groceries are rising, there are multiple programs available to provide more affordable, or even free, broadband service to people who qualify.

The federal Affordable Connectivity Program provides a subsidy of up to $30 a month to any qualifying resident. In New York City, the Big Apple Connect program provides a free broadband connection to most public housing residents. Across the state, different agencies, at both the local and state levels, have led the effort to get people enrolled in these programs.

Matthew Fraser, New York City’s chief technology officer, said the proportion of public housing subscribers doubled from about 40% to 80%.

“We’re trending in a very positive direction,” Fraser said. “The key is, just with the program, we’ve been able to cover more households and add more subscribers faster than (the Affordable Connectivity Program) had been historically.”

One of the biggest challenges remaining is messaging. Lawmakers and advocates have said that building trust, overcoming language barriers and convincing people that the process will be easy are all important parts of the job.

State Sen. Kristen Gonzalez, who chairs the Internet and Technology Committee, said the state needs to continue working with local groups to build up a grassroots network to continue enrolling eligible people.

“The money is there,” Gonzalez said. “Investing it back into communities, not only from a skills and development perspective, but from a workers rights perspective as well, to be able to build that infrastructure and own it themselves.”

Fraser said Big Apple Connect has been able to get many people enrolled by offering a simplified over the phone sign-up process to give older adults a more familiar enrollment method.

“Lowering that threshold and that barrier of entry, I think, is one of the great successes behind the plan,” Fraser said. “It was more than just cost. It was also complexities around enrollment and other underlying factors that impacted utilization.”

Another key component to increasing access and availability, lawmakers say, is tweeking laws and regulations, especially around building out infrastructure. As part of ConnectALL, the state has streamlined permitting processes for internet providers.

Woerner introduced a bill to level the playing field on taxes for broadband providers – traditional telecommunications companies and newer broadband providers are taxed differently – and was glad to see the state accelerate some of the permitting processes and other bureaucratic obstacles. But more can be done, she said.

“We can look at what those layers of cost are and peel away the ones that are not really necessary, so that, in the service of bringing access to everyone, we are maximizing, we are optimizing for that outcome,” Woerner said.

The state has also allowed private providers to tap into state-owned fiber optic lines run by the New York Power Authority and other agencies. This significantly reduces the cost of reaching remote areas, allowing them to avoid running redundant lines.

“That’s a critical way that we can lower the barrier to deployment,” Breitbart said.

But state lawmakers and regulators were also concerned about the lack of accountability internet providers are held to in exchange for these concessions.

Ryan called the internet provider market the “Wild West” in terms of accountability. He believes they should be regulated by the Public Service Commission in the same way as other utilities and introduced a bill that would give the commission regulatory powers over the industry.

“Sooner or later we are going to have to accept the fact that internet is a utility that the public needs,” Ryan said. “Companies already are acting like monopolies, so we need to regulate them. That’s the only thing that’s going to get us to a high-quality internet throughout the state.”

As it stands now, if a consumer is getting spotty internet service, particularly in the poorest neighborhoods across the state, there is no recourse other than to switch companies, and there are often few choices available.

While Ryan agreed that the unserved populations in New York deserved attention, he said the underserved population was the more pressing issue.

“It’s the underserved, which is a greater number of people,” he said. “That is people getting very low-quality internet and paying a whole lot of money for it.”

For Gonzalez, bringing internet providers under the purview of the Public Service Commission needs to be a priority, especially as the state and federal governments prepare to spend more than $1.5 billion subsidizing infrastructure and subscriptions.

“We do that with our power authority,” she said. “We do that if we talk about light or when we talk about other utilities. I think that, if the government is investing, we should have a government-based option.”

Now, as programs continue to ramp up, lawmakers and state officials will be flush with cash in their efforts to improve on the accessibility and availability of quality internet connections.

Access to the internet, in today’s world, is essential to finding a job, connecting with other people and learning about what’s happening in the world.

“Without providing access to broadband, we would further the chasm that would keep some families in poverty,” Fraser said. “From an education perspective, we would inhibit people from growing at the pace their peers are growing that do have access.”

But it’s also an economic development issue. Ryan said he hears from small-business owners who said that slow internet speeds make it harder for them at work.

“We hear it all the time from small businesses, depending on where they are located, that they need quality, consistent internet to run their businesses,” he said. “They often don’t have it. It’s a real economic detriment to New York state.”

And Woerner said access to quality internet connections has prevented people who discovered the charm of rural life during the pandemic and have remote jobs from moving to her district.

She and other lawmakers are glad to see progress made in recent years, but know there is still plenty of work to be done: “We can’t take our foot off the gas.”