A Quarter of Households Struggle with Internet Access in Syracuse, N.Y.

The gaping divide between the digital haves and have-nots in Syracuse is one of the most critical and least discussed inequities plaguing a city beset with generational poverty. Solutions to the problem are complex and costly.

by Chris Baker, Syracuse Media Group / April 4, 2019

(TNS) — Khadija Hafidi doesn’t have a computer in her home. She has a cell phone, with a data plan, but no Internet service or Wi-Fi.

So most days she takes the bus or walks to the Westside Learning Center or the Onondaga County Library’s downtown branch -- treks more than a mile long. She’s learning English and studying to get a high school diploma. To do that, she needs to be online.

Hafidi, an immigrant from Morocco who is in the United States on a visa, is one of tens of thousands of people in Syracuse without a home Internet subscription.

Syracuse is the 10th worst city in the nation for digital connectivity. One-quarter of the city’s 54,000 households have no Internet. That means people from more than 13,000 homes have to go to a library or a school or a neighbor’s house if they want to get online.

Additionally, nearly half of the city’s homes don’t have high-speed broadband, the kind of Internet needed to download large pieces of content or conduct business. Several thousand households rely solely on a cellular data plan to get online, meaning people have to chew up expensive data on their phone to access the web. Those connections tend to be slower and less reliable than hard-wired broadband and usually come with data caps.

A few hundred homes in Syracuse still use a dial-up modem.

The gaping divide between the digital haves and have-nots in Syracuse is one of the most critical and least discussed inequities plaguing a city beset with generational poverty. The digital divide disproportionately affects people in low-income neighborhoods, who often can’t afford the high cost of a broadband subscription or don’t have reliable access to a cellular data network.

Solutions to the problem are complex and costly. Short of creating a municipal broadband program, the city is mostly beholden to monopolistic telecommunication companies like Spectrum, which is the only operator in most of the city. Verizon once promised to expand its broadband network citywide, but backed out because it didn’t want to shell out the kind of money that would take.

Mayor Ben Walsh is exploring several ways to improve broadband connectivity in the city’s digital deserts, mostly stemming from an ambitious plan to purchase nearly 18,000 streetlights from National Grid.

Hafidi is like many people who go to extraordinary lengths to get basic Internet. She’s had access at home in the past, but her provider recently shut it off. Her husband crushed his hand at work (he works at an auto garage) and has been temporarily out of work, making it more difficult to pay some bills.

“Sometimes we pay the bill, but sometimes we need to wait until [my husband] gets paid,” she said. Her household -- like many -- has lots of bills. And when money gets tight, the Internet bill ranks far below utilities like heat, electricity and water.

For now, Hafidi is fortunate. She’s borrowing a laptop kit from the library -- part of a county-funded program to provide more access. It comes with a mobile hotspot that allows her to get online so she can study at home and practice her English.

There’s a huge demand for those laptop kits throughout the county. Officials recently approved $100,000 to buy more of them in an effort to alleviate an ever-growing waiting list of people looking for a way to get online at home.

For Hafidi, that home access brings her one step closer to her goals of earning her high school equivalency degree, becoming more comfortable speaking English and opening her own bakery here in Syracuse.

What is the Digital Divide?

Earlier this year, the U.S. Census Bureau released data about home Internet connections. The results outline how broadly the digital divide impacts Syracuse.

Just more than 66 percent of households in Syracuse have an Internet subscription (like Spectrum), leaving us far below the national average of 84 percent. That means more than 13,000 households in Syracuse don’t have access.

Only 58 percent of households have broadband Internet, which provides the kind of upload and download speeds needed to stream video or quickly send and receive information. About 12 percent exclusively use a cellular data plan to get online. Fewer than one percent still use dial-up.

Households without broadband are heavily concentrated in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, creating “digital deserts” where people can’t afford the high cost of a monthly broadband subscription, and are limited in their options. On the Near Westside, for example, only one in four households has broadband.

That dearth of digital access is part of the vicious cycle of poverty in Syracuse. Thousands of people can’t afford Internet here and, because of that, are limited in their access to services, education and job opportunities -- all things that could serve as avenues out of generational poverty. It’s just one more area where Syracuse has fallen behind the rest of the state and the country.

Broadband Subscriptions by Census Tract

To those with regular Internet access, the problem may seem trivial: So you can’t stream Netflix or leave mean comments on Facebook? Big deal.

But the privilege of online accessibility is one of the more serious socioeconomic inequities of the present and the future, especially as the world embraces a digital economy.

Convenient online access allows people to connect with family and friends, pay bills, read the news, search for recipes, get directions, schedule appointments, order an Uber and on and on. It’s part of the fabric of most people’s lives. It’s a tool for education and advancement. It’s a forum for conversation and romance. It’s a place to buy and sell goods. It saves users time and money.

The average American spent about 23 hours a week online in 2017 (including 18 hours online at home), according to a study from the Center for the Digital Future, which tracks online usage every year. That number has nearly tripled since 2000.

How Streetlights Might Help

Mayor Ben Walsh’s administration is exploring ways to improve the city’s access. He’s highlighted the digital divide as a critical inequality -- one he wants to fix.

A report from Walsh’s administration that compares Syracuse’s economic recovery to similar cities across the state (Buffalo, Albany and Rochester) includes digital access as one of five areas where Syracuse lags behind the rest of the state.

Syracuse doesn’t just trail behind its New York neighbors -- it’s among the worst cities in America.

The National Digital Inclusion Alliance, a non-for-profit that tracks connectivity and access in American cities using Census data, ranked Syracuse the 10th worst city in the nation for connectivity in 2017. Syracuse has skyrocketed up that organization’s “worst connected cities” list in recent years and is now near the top, along with places like Laredo, Texas and Detroit, Michigan.

According to the NDIA analysis, Syracuse’s rate of connectivity isn’t worsening, but almost everywhere else in America is improving. Syracuse, it seems, is stuck in a digital rut while other cities charge ahead.

Worst Connected Cities in America, 2017
Source: National Digital Inclusion Alliance

Rank, City, Total households; Households without Internet; % households without Internet

1.  Laredo, Texas — 70,522;  22,767;  32.3%

2.  Brownsville, Texas —  52,138;  16,105;  30.9%

3.  Hialeah, Fla. — 77,399;  23,208;  30.0%

4.  Detroit, Mich. — 264,360;  71,372;  27.0%

5.  Cleveland, Ohio — 171,717;  45,652;  26.6%

6.  Memphis, Tenn. — 246,518;  61,608;  25.0%

7.  Miami, Fla. — 170,005;  42,208;  24.8%

8.  Philadelphia, Pa. —  606,142;  147,627;  24.4%

9.  Newark, N.J. — 98,678;  24,024;  24.3%

10.  Syracuse, N.Y. —  54,062;  13,031;  24.1%

Walsh’s team sees a path forward through a first-of-its-kind program where the city will purchase more than 17,000 street lights from National Grid and replace them with LEDs. Owning those lights will give city hall access to a connected infrastructure grid that stretches into every corner of the city.

Officials plan to use that network to install technology that will improve access to Wi-Fi, 4G and emerging 5G cellular networks in the city’s digital deserts. That could begin as early as this summer.

In addition to preparing the new grid of light fixtures for 5G hubs to improve mobile Internet access, officials are exploring laying new fiber-optic lines in existing conduits that run under the streets, according to Chief Data Officer Sam Edelstein. Those fiber lines will expand access to services like municipal Wi-Fi and could attract more Internet service providers to the city.

Part of the problem here is a lack of options when it comes to buying Internet. In most of the city, Spectrum is the only broadband provider that’s laid fiber. Despite programs aimed at making the Internet affordable for low-income households, the prices can still be out of reach.

In Syracuse, Spectrum’s high-speed plan with a 100 Mbps connection costs $65.99 per month. A spokesman said prices here are the same as any city in which Spectrum operates nationwide. Spectrum’s high-speed Internet is also available virtually anywhere in the city.

The company has also made efforts to bridge the digital divide here for low-income families and seniors. Spectrum’s Internet Assist program offers a 30 Mbps package for $14.95 per month to any family with children eligible for the National School Lunch Program and seniors receiving Supplemental Security Income benefits.

A spokesman said the company does not release data on how many households participate in that program.

Verizon had promised to expand its FiOS fiber-optic network into the city years ago, but stopped short near the city limits, citing the high cost of laying a network. FiOS Internet, then, is available only to some neighborhoods on the city’s east side and in a few suburbs.

A Verizon spokesman declined comment for this story.

If you want to get online in the city, for the most part, Spectrum is the only game in town. Edelstein and city hall want to change that.

“Thinking about more competition is certainly a consideration," Edelstein said. “The infrastructure is the expensive part -- digging into the road, laying fiber, it’s not nothing. Part of what we’re looking for in this whole build-out is expanding the fiber network through the city...If that fiber is there, maybe there’s an opportunity for others to use it.”

The idea is to build a public fiber network that any Internet provider -- large or small -- can use. The city will own the fiber and let companies use it to deliver Internet. It’s part of a growing school of thought that the Internet should be treated like public infrastructure, not a private utility.

©2019 Syracuse Media Group, N.Y. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.