CAPITOL — State lawmakers representing highly rural districts are voicing frustration after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo pocket-vetoed a bill that would have required the state Public Service Commission to conduct an in-depth study of where broadband internet coverage is weak or non-existent.
“This frustrating delay only means that our rural communities must continue to wait for the Governor to fulfill his longstanding promise to close the gaps in broadband services through the New NY Broadband Program made back in 2015,” said state Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, a co-sponsor of the bill.
“In Duanesburg, in Princetown, they do not have broadband,” said Santabarbara, who is Assembly chair the Commission on Rural Resources, and whose district includes those rural Schenectady County towns.
The bill, which passed both the Assembly and Senate last year, would have required the Public Service Commission to review broadband and fiber optic services within the state and require the expansion of broadband and fiber optic services, with a focus on identifying and mapping areas that are underserved.
The bill was sent to Cuomo’s office, where the governor took no action before the bill’s signing deadline — a move called a pocket veto, since it doesn’t require him to sign a veto, but still blocks the legislation.
A number of legislators last month had urged Cuomo to sign the bill, citing the growing need for high-speed internet access, especially during the pandemic.
On Facebook, state Sen. Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, called the pocket veto “a missed opportunity for a much-needed and highly specific analysis of who doesn’t have access to high-speed broadband. Everyone was promised access to high-speed broadband by the end of 2018.”
Thomas Ciaccio, superintendent of the Fonda-Fultonville Central Schools in Montgomery County, said 15 percent of the district’s families lack high-speed internet access — a significant problem when classes are being conducted remotely because of the pandemic.
“The first priority needs to be ensuring that high speed broadband is seen as a basic utility that everyone can access, just like electricity or your phone service,” Ciaccio said. “Until this occurs, those in rural communities similar to those in the Fonda-Fultonville District will not have equal access to their education based on where they have chosen to live. This should not be an issue in the year 2021.”
Santabarbara acknowledged he was especially outraged when Cuomo, during this year’s series of State of the State virtual addresses, called for the state to subsidize broadband for low-income communities, saying 98 percent of the state now has coverage.
While that may be true in terms of population served, it isn’t true of the state’s geography, since vast tracts of land in the Adirondacks, Catskills and western New York remain without service, at a time when the pandemic has made rural broadband access vitally important for jobs, education and health care.
New York state broadband mapping follows the Federal Communication Commission’s practice of mapping service based on census blocks, which Santabarbara said can be misleading.
“A census block is considered served if there is broadband service to one or more locations within the block. This system is especially problematic in rural areas, which have large census blocks that are considered served even if a single neighborhood has broadband service,” Santabarbara said.
A senior advisor to Cuomo said the governor agrees with the concept, but the estimated $3 million price tag was a barrier, given the state’s fiscal straits. The governor will seek to fund the study in the 2022 state budget, due April 1.
“The legislation had a $3 million fiscal cost that occurred outside of the budget, thus it wasn’t acted upon,” said advisor and spokesman Rich Azzopardi. “However, we agree with it in concept and will be including a proposal in the budget. The Governor has invested $500 million in expanding the availability of broadband to 98 percent of this state and is advancing legislation this year to drastically increase its affordability.”
State Sen. George Borrello, R-Hanover, a Senate co-sponsor of the bill, said the digital divide between urban-suburban areas and rural areas has widened.
“It is incredibly disappointing that the governor has chosen to turn his back on rural New Yorkers and their continuing struggle for high-speed internet access by failing to enact this important measure,” he told the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, which first reported the governor’s move earlier this week.