ALBANY -- Getting cellphone service to all the upstate areas that now lack it would cost around $633 million, according to the Upstate Cellular Coverage Task Force's preliminary findings.
The task force, appointed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in September, recently met to review preliminary recommendations that include encouraging private investment, standardizing applications to make applying to build cellphone towers easier for communications companies, and offering some state economic incentives for them to reach remote areas.
“In the Adironacks, we want to make it as easy as possible for these companies to move forward, because they’re companies, and they need to make money, and there’s less money to be made in rural areas," said state Assemblyman Billy Jones, D-Plattsburgh, a member of the task force.
While the lack of cellphone coverage in mountainous and remote areas like the Adirondacks and Catskills has become notorious, many rural areas also lack coverage, or at least quality coverage. Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, said that in his 111th Assembly District, communities like Duanesburg and Fonda-Fultonville have poor service.
“There are very significant gaps on roadways," said Santabarbara, a civil engineer by training. “Even on the Thruway, you go between [Exit] 25A and [Exit] 24 you will lose coverage for a mile or more. There are areas of the state where you lose it for 10 miles or more.”
Santabarbara said that while the $633 million cost estimate would be enough money to cover the gaps in cell coverage along major roadways, it won't address the needs of smaller local roads and the most remote areas, where he said service is critical. A second phase of expansion would be needed to cover the state's most-rural areas, but he said it's needed.
“It’s a safety issue more than anything else," Santabarbara said.
Santabarbara said he'll be looking to have some funding for extending cell coverage included in the 2021 state budget, even if Cuomo doesn't include any cell coverage initiatives in the executive budget proposal due in January.
“Every New Yorker should have access to 21st-century technology, and I’ll remain steadfast in my efforts to make this a reality across all parts of the state,” Santabarbara said.
Cuomo, however, appointed the task force, and has indicated support for its mission.
"Every New Yorker should be able to access a stable cell connection, yet our upstate regions have struggled for too long to make the connections that are vital to everyday life and commerce," Cuomo said when he appointed the task force in early September.
The governor -- like the legislators from communities with spotty-to-nonexistent coverage -- believes the lack of coverage undermines economic development, impacts community safety, and inhibits the use of smart community infrastructure. And it discourages people from moving to or staying in rural communities.
“It’s a public safety issue, and it’s an economic development issue for my district," said Jones, whose 115th Assembly District stretches across 37 towns, from Saranac Lake to the Canadian border. "We want to retain people and we want to attract them to the area. If you ask Realtors, probably the second or third question asked is there cellphone coverage.”
The report is being written by Empire State Development, the state's economic development department. Task force members included state and local officials, as well as elected officials like Santabarbara and Jones.
On Friday, Empire State Development wouldn't confirm any details of the recommendations.
"The Governor’s Upstate Cellular Task Force continues to work diligently to analyze and prepare recommendations to address cell coverage gaps across Upstate New York. We are committed to working with industry and other stakeholders toward closing the cellular gap in Upstate New York," the agency said in a statement.
Jones and state Sen. Betty Little, R-Queensbury, have urged that the state allow taller towers in the Adirondacks, where current Adirondack Park Agency guidelines to preserve the mountain park's character call for cell towers to be "substantially invisible."
The Adirondack Council, a conservation group, has urged that the invisibility standard be kept in place, while acknowledging large parts of the park need better service.
"The 'substantially invisible' policy has caused very little difficulty for cell phone companies," the council asserted in a Nov. 12 letter to the task force. "At public forums, industry representatives have reported that the policy has caused no major delays or obstacles to installations. To date, the APA has not rejected a single cell tower installation permit, while approving dozens."
The task force held what is expected to be its last meeting on Wednesday in Albany. Its report is expected in the near future.