Lack of access to high-speed internet is a common complaint in rural areas like ours. Long before COVID-19 was a threat to public health, New York families and businesses without high-speed internet …
Lack of access to high-speed internet is a common complaint in rural areas like ours. Long before COVID-19 was a threat to public health, New York families and businesses without high-speed internet were at a severe disadvantage—workers unable to telecommute, students unable to access online resources, families disconnected from their loved ones around the country, and all of us unable to access information in an emergency.
In early March, I announced the introduction of two bills to address deficiencies in rural broadband service across New York State. This broadband legislation rightly recognizes access to high-speed internet as a right of all New Yorkers, essential to economic and social well-being and to public safety.
For many New Yorkers, the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified the urban-rural digital divide. Isolating and quarantining to protect public health is essential, but for our rural communities, the literal disconnect is too challenging to manage in a society that increasingly relies on affordable and dependable internet service. We’re told to use telemedicine, attend classes online and work from home, but how can you do any of that if you don’t have broadband?
In an effort to expand infrastructure and increase access to high-speed broadband service, I have introduced legislation (S5696A) requiring the Public Service Commission to assess the availability, affordability and reliability of high-speed internet and broadband in New York State and produce a detailed map on its website that indicates internet access, speeds and cost of service by location. Closing the gap for communities that have experienced negative economic and social impacts due to absent or insufficient service is a major focus of the legislation, which has 27 co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle.
Sullivan County mapped its broadband service in 2014, showing large gaps in coverage. The following year, the governor launched a Broadband for All initiative, investing $500 million to extend coverage to underserved and unserved areas. That money has been spent, and the governor’s office claims that 98 percent of the state is now served. But we know the Federal Communications Commission inaccurately gathers broadband data using census blocks, and enormous areas of Sullivan County still have poor broadband access or none at all.
A second bill I’ve introduced (S7988) addresses another problem affecting far too many people in our rural communities: poor service and broken promises by internet companies regarding speeds. These companies are essentially monopolies in local areas—you don’t have a real choice of internet service providers (ISPs) and nowhere to go if they overcharge or underperform.
Hard-working New Yorkers should receive the service quality they’re paying for, period. My legislation would require, for the first time, that the Public Service Commission establish service quality standards, and set a baseline for reliable and affordable internet service for all New Yorkers. The penalties provided for in this legislation, similar to those applicable to utility companies, will keep the ISPs accountable for their actions and promises to the citizens of this state.
Affordable access to high-speed internet is critical to the revitalization of rural communities, and to the health, well-being and quality of life of all New Yorkers. The digital divide deprives our communities of educational and economic opportunities while harming public health. We must act now to close this gap once and for all.
For more on how a lack of broadband access is affecting our community on both sides of the river, see last week’s story “Finding broadband.”