State launching rural broadband access study; To map out underserved areas to get them served

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CAPITAL REGION – A new state study to map out areas underserved by broadband internet so attention can be focused on serving them is about to start, an Assembly backer said Friday.

“This needs to happen if we are going to break down and get past the barriers that have not allowed broadband to expand in rural communities,” said Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam.

The $3 million study will be conducted by the state Public Service Commission, with a report due by May 16, 2022. Launching the study was one of the provisions in a 2021-2022 internet access bill signed into law in April by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

The bill calls for the PSC to identify barriers in delivering internet, resolve problems in serving rural areas, identify internet providers that haven’t complied with franchise agreements to expand rural service, and create an internet access map. Commercial providers regard rural service as unprofitable, since there are few customers per mile.

“This is a very important step toward closing the digital divide,” said Santabarbara, Assembly chair of the Commission on Rural Resources.

The assemblyman sponsored an earlier bill in 2020 calling for the study, and was among legislators who complained in January after Cuomo procedurally vetoed it. A spokesman said at the time Cuomo would include the study in legislation then being developed — which he then did.

Santabarbara, however, remains unhappy about the delay.

“Sadly, the governor vetoed this legislation last year — a move that delayed this important step towards closing the gaps in broadband services especially in our rural communities,” Santabarbara said. “This study will now allow the state to finally begin fulfilling its promise to close the gaps in broadband coverage for rural new Yorkers.”

The legislation, which Cuomo signed in April, has received the most attention for its promise that affordable internet will be available qualifying low-income families, for as little as $15 per month.

“High-speed internet is essential to our everyday lives, and as we continue to reopen our state and adjust to new norms that have been shaped by the pandemic, we need to make sure every household has access to affordable internet,” Cuomo said. “Remote learning, remote working, and telemedicine are not going away.”

Cuomo said the study will map the quality — not just the availability — of coverage, and is part of the state’s effort to make broadband accessible and affordable for all.

Santabarbara said 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.

Federal and state legislators have been talking for years about providing stronger internet service in rural areas, starting well before the restrictions of the pandemic brought home the importance of internet communications for business, government and schools.

“With this pandemic, everything we’re talking about has really been highlighted,” Santabarbara said. “The need is not going to go away when COVID goes away, because companies are going to be doing things differently.”

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