The regular legislative session ends today, with the Legislature and governor in the last couple of days agreeing on a number of issues, including some where it appeared they would not. Something they didn’t even have the opportunity to agree on, because the Assembly failed to act on it, is a bill that would help expand broadband to unserved and underserved communities.
The state knows exactly where those communities are, thanks to a mapping effort undertaken in 2010 with federal stimulus money. In all, New York state got $160 million of the $8 billion the Obama administration handed out to the states to bring broadband to places, most of them rural and remote, that don’t have it.
Although there have been abuses in some parts of the country — for example, money being used to lay fiber-optic line in areas that already had it — that hasn’t been the case under Gov. Cuomo’s ConnectNY Broadband Grant Program. The focus has been on getting service to rural areas like the Mohawk Valley, remote ones like the Adirondacks, and populated but disadvantaged ones like the poorer sections of New York City. People living in these places need reliable, high-speed Internet for job opportunities, education resources, health care information, even government service. Broadband is the equivalent of what rural electrification was in the 1930s.
Although progress is being made with ConnectNY, it isn’t fast enough. Different approaches besides grants are necessary. One such approach is part of a bipartisan bill, co-sponsored by local Sens. Cecilia Tkaczyk and Kathy Marchione, that passed the Senate earlier this year but hasn’t made it out of committee in the Assembly.
The legislation would provide residents and small businesses with fully refundable tax credits for their reasonable out-of-pocket expenses if they partner with a provider to bring broadband service to their unserved area. The provider itself wouldn’t be eligible for state money and would have to make a “significant” contribution toward construction costs.
The tax credits, which would be paid over five years, would encourage residents and small businesses to pool their resources, decide what kind of service they want, and have providers compete for the job. The result could be more efforts like the recent one in which a coalition of residents, school officials, parents and a local business raised money, bought equipment and, with a locally owned Internet service provider, brought nearly universal service to the Adirondack town of Keene.
The bill’s memo estimates that 10,000 New Yorkers would take advantage of the tax credit each year, at a cost to the state of $10 million. The state can afford that, and the investment would be well worth it.