Rural areas in NYS lack broadband and need it amid the pandemic

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Broadband internet is more important now than ever. The coronavirus pandemic has people working from home and at the same time children are doing remote schooling.

However, for millions of Americans, especially in rural areas, this hasn’t been possible. Many viewers in New York have told NewsChannel 13 they have been waiting for broadband for years.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in 2018, "This is the first state in the United States of America to have 100 percent internet access for the entire state."

But fast-forward to 2020, and there are households that still don’t have internet access.

"We’re down to about 217 unserved homes in the town, unfortunately I’m one of them,” said Annabel Felton who lives in Duanesburg.

Felton has lived on Creek Road there for nearly 25 years. She never thought all these years later, and all these years of technological advances later, she still wouldn’t have broadband.

Amid the pandemic, she and her husband have been working from home. Her daughter has been doing her school work right alongside them. Fortunately, they can afford a hot spot, but it doesn’t always work.

She said for the past six years she has been trying to get broadband to all the town. Duanesburg has a franchise agreement with Charter Communications.

“Our town franchise requires them to serve areas with 20 homes per mile, this road that I live on we have about 10 homes per mile,” said Felton. “We’re not in the middle of nowhere. I’m two miles from Hannaford and I still don’t have a wired connection because there’s not sufficient return on investment for Charter to provide it.”

People in rural areas need broadband now. The pandemic is highlighting the digital divide in the state. According to a report from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, in New York, around 98.4% or the population has access to broadband. In rural areas, only 87% of the population has access while 99.9% of the population in urban areas have access.

Still, there have been questions about the accuracy of those numbers. The Federal Communications Commission currently uses what’s called census blocking to see who does and does not have broadband. It makes it appear that a company serves more people than they do.

"If I live in a census block, if one house in this large area is served by a carrier with broadband, then everybody is supposedly served but that’s no true it’s only one house,” explained Barbara Brabetz who lives in the Town of Florida.

Brabetz lives on Old Valley Road and does not have internet. She’s a college professor, and often has to pack up her laptop and drive somewhere else just to do her work. In the spring, she headed to North Carolina.

"I’m an essential worker and I had to shutter my house and go to my relative’s house in order to do my job from the months of March to June,” she said.

Brabetz said she recently asked the New NY Broadband Office when she might get service, like she asks every year, but it doesn’t look promising.

“It looks like all the funding through 2023 is allocated so I’ve been asked to check back in 2023,” said Brabetz. “I don’t know if I have that much patience given it’s a pandemic going on.”

The governor established the $500 million New NY Broadband Program in 2015. It’s a privateepublic partnership to deliver high speed internet access to underserved areas.

Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara said companies are not going into true rural areas.

“You’re going to find it’s more difficult to build infrastructure out here but this is where it’s needed the most,” said Santabarbara speaking at his home in Rotterdam. “Just because you live in a rural community does not mean you should be cut off from the rest of the world or at a disadvantage or not have opportunities that broadband can bring.”

Santabarbara is suggesting funding in the state budget specifically for rural areas, not statewide funding.

That’s something Felton agrees with.

"I think it’s important the public service commission get accurate maps and I also think it’s important we continue funding, because interenet service providers aren’t willing to build out in an area where they can’t get a certain return on investment," said Felton.

But it goes back to knowing who has internet access and who does not. The state Senate and Assembly passed a bill that directs the Public Service Commission to produce a detailed map that indicates service by location.

State Sen. Jen Metzger, whose district is the Hudson Valley and Catskills, said her bill is a step forward to gaining broadband for all, but it’s a difficult process.

“Internet service providers are regulated at the federal level not at the state level,” explained Metzger. “I wish they could be regulated like a utility, like electric and gas.”

Cuomo’s office said it’s reviewing the bill. He has yet to sign it.

I did reach out the New NY Broadband program office. Here are the answers I received to my questions from a spokesperson with Empire State Development:

Do you have an exact number of homes in the state that do not have access to broadband? I know mapping is a big concern due to census blocking. Is fixing mapping something on your radar?

·When the New NY Broadband Program was launched, 30 percent of New Yorkers – approximately 2.42 million locations – lacked access to broadband. Today, approximately 98 percent of locations have access.

· Some New NY Broadband Projects are ongoing and Charter Communications is currently building out to 145,000 locations throughout the state as part of a condition imposed by the New York Public Service Commission in its approval of Charter Communications’ acquisition of Time Warner Cable. Charter’s buildout is not a part of the New NY Broadband Program and does not utilize state funding.

· The FCC uses a “one-served, all served” method for calculating access to broadband, a system that is now under review following congressional passage of the Broadband DATA Act earlier this year. The New York State Broadband Program Office recognizes the limitations of that model, and our program authorized providers to build into census blocks that the FCC would otherwise deem “served” if they could demonstrate one or more units lacked service.

The governor established the $500 million program in 2015. How much funding is left? Do you continuously get federal funding as well?

· All New NY Broadband Program funding has been committed.

· New York State previously secured $170 million in additional funding from the FCC to help broadband providers maintain service over the next decade.

· Some census blocks in New York State are eligible for the FCC’s new Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.

I interviewed a viewer who consistently calls the broadband program office about when she will get broadband to her home. She thought it would be coming in 2015 or 2018. She said most recently she was told all the funding has been allocated until 2023 and to check back then. Is that accurate? Has all the funding been allocated until then? Is there a reason her area (Town of Florida, Montgomery County) has to wait until 2023 to potentially get broadband?

· It depends on whether or not the viewer’s home is located in a census block served by the New NY Broadband Program.

· New NY Broadband Program buildout in Florida:

o Florida will receive a total of $653,394 in state and private funding to address 175 locations, served by the Pattersonville Telephone Company and Hughes Network Systems. The Pattersonville project is complete (service is available) and Hughes (satellite) service launched in March and is now available.

· You can view program funding, providers, and locations addressed by municipalityhere.

The governor said in 2018 “This is the first state in the United States of America to have 100 percent internet access for the entire state and I think that’s going to be an incentive for companies all across the world.” Did he make this statement based on census blocking?

  • No. As we’ve stated above, the New NY Broadband Program includes projects in areas in census blocks that the FCC counts as “served”.

Public Service Commission Statement on Lack of Broadband:

“The Commission approved a settlement agreement with Charter in July 2019 to resolve disputes over the network expansion. As part of that agreement, a new schedule for completion of its build out was established with interim milestones and a completion date of September 2021. Spectrum is required to regularly report its compliance with the PSC’s buildout agreement. We are proud of the Department’s and State’s efforts regarding broadband deployment, and continue to work tirelessly with many public and private partners to improve broadband access and choices for New York residents and businesses. The company’s interim milestone was May 31, 2020 by which time it must have completed a network build to pass 99,347 addresses. Department staff will continue to ensure that Spectrum meets its obligations under this agreement.”