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State comptroller's report finds gaps in internet services

Ryan Delaney
WRVO News File Photo

A new report by the state’s comptroller finds that despite years of government programs, 1 million New York households still have no access to the internet, and many in rural areas have limited access to inadequate services.

Comptroller Tom DiNapoli said the homes without broadband represent 14% of the state’s households. Many of them earn less than $20,000 a year.

“There still is a digital divide, particularly in rural parts of the state,” DiNapoli said. “And for lower-income New Yorkers, who don’t have access or can’t afford a home subscription.”

Others can’t get access to high-speed internet services. The report finds that many predominately rural areas remain underserved, with either no availability of cable or fiber optic network services, or access to just one company.

The comptroller spoke at a bipartisan event in the city of Hudson in rural Columbia County. Assemblymember Didi Barrett, who represents the region, said the COVID-19 pandemic-related lockdowns magnified the inequities in broadband access.

“Households juggled as multiple family members suddenly tried to log on at the same time for work and for school,” said Barrett, who added constituents told her they had to huddle outside libraries or coffeehouses to complete work or school assignments.

She also said some people struggling with mental health or addition issues had to make do with spotty Zoom meetings for support.

“Which is a pretty tragic image,” Barrett said.

Existing programs have had some success. New York contracted with private companies to expand services, and the federal government has provided over 326,000 households with $50-a-month subsidies to purchase internet services.

But the report finds that many obstacles remain. Cable and fiber optic companies have been unwilling to install service on country roads, requiring homeowners to pay thousands of dollars to finance the hookups.

Also, the Federal Communications Commission significantly undercounts the number of households that have access to high-speed internet. The FCC uses census data that concludes that if one house on a block has it, then all of the houses on the block do.

Barrett said that’s meaningless in rural areas, where a “block” can be miles long and contain long stretches of woods or fields between houses.

DiNapoli said the state needs to craft a detailed strategy to identify exactly where access is lacking, and whether the people who live there need subsidies to pay for an internet service.

He said the state has taken in $5 billion more in sales and income taxes and other revenues than originally projected, and perhaps some of those funds could be used to increase broadband access.

Sen. Daphne Jordan, who represents rural regions in eastern New York, said the state can also work to eliminate barriers that make it harder for smaller internet providers to fill the gap. Utility companies like National Grid require the internet providers to pay for poles that are in disrepair. The state also charges right-of-way fees on state highways to internet service providers.

“When a utility company tells them, ‘You can use our pole, but you need to replace it because it’s in disrepair,’ they can’t afford to do that,” Jordan said. “When the state imposes the tax on the right of way for fiber optic, that makes it unaffordable.”

Jordan said tax credits could also be used.

DiNapoli and the lawmakers who spoke do not endorse a measure for broadband access that would be similar to the Rural Electrification Act in the early 20th century, which mandated companies to provide electric services.

They say there are funds remaining in the state’s portion of the pandemic relief measures passed by Congress, and they hope some of that money could be used for extending broadband services.

Also, the House and Senate are considering a $3.5 trillion infrastructure package. Rep. Antonio Delgado, who also participated in the event, said he’s pressing for rules to build any new broadband infrastructure at a higher, more modern, rate of speed.

DiNapoli said state leaders need to make sure that any federal money for internet access needs to be targeted where it is most needed.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.