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New York Mandates $15-a-Month Broadband for Low-Income Users

New York’s newly enacted state budget requires nearly all Internet providers to sell broadband service for $15 a month to low-income customers who qualify for food stamps, Medicaid or similar benefits.

by Tim Knauss, syracuse.com / April 8, 2021
The New York Capitol in Albany. David Kidd/Government Technology

(TNS) — The newly enacted state budget requires nearly all internet providers to sell broadband service for $15 a month to low-income customers who qualify for food stamps, Medicaid or similar benefits.

Internet providers have 60 days to start offering minimum internet speeds of 25 megabits per second for $15 a month to qualifying customers. They have the option to provide 100 Mbps service for $20.

The mandated service is similar to what state regulators already require from two of the state’s largest providers, Spectrum and Optimum. Since 2017, for example, Spectrum has offered qualifying low-income customers 30 Mbps service for $14.99.

But the new law will make low-cost broadband available to many more of the state’s 1.7 million low-income households, said Richard Berkley, executive director of Public Utility Law Project, an advocacy group for low-income utility customers.

For one thing, the eligibility requirements in the new law are more expansive than what the Public Service Commission imposed on Spectrum. And the new law applies to all of the more than two dozen internet providers in New York, unless they have fewer than 20,000 customers and can show hardship.

The law aims to close the digital divide, which loomed large during the past year, Berkley said. Some kids lacked broadband service needed for remote schooling. Some senior citizens were unable to obtain telemedicine services for want of high-speed internet.

“This is vital,” Berkley said. “The pandemic showed us that affordable, comprehensive access to high-speed broadband is vital.”

The wider availability of low-cost service could have a significant impact in cities like Syracuse. One-quarter of the 54,000 households in Syracuse had no internet service as of 2019, according to a report by Syracuse.com. Only 58% had high-speed broadband.

Under the budget bill passed Tuesday, households can now get the low-cost broadband service if they qualify for Medicaid Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (food stamps); free or reduced-price school lunch; affordability benefits from a utility; or a senior citizen rent increase exemption.

Under a 2016 order approving the merger of Time Warner Cable and Charter Communications, the state Public Service Commission required Charter’s service brand, Spectrum, to offer a low-income broadband option for $14.99. The service had to reach speeds of 30 Mbps by 2017.

Eligibility was limited to households that qualified for free school lunch or to seniors who qualified for Supplemental Security Income. A similar PSC order applied to Optimum, a downstate provider, after its owner merged with another company.

The new law will extend the requirement to provide service to low-income consumers to other major internet providers like Verizon and RCN and to the roughly two dozen smaller internet companies. Outside of company mergers, the state does not typically exercise that level of control over internet service.

If an internet provider has fewer than 20,000 customers and can show that a low-income service would cause undue hardship, the PSC can excuse it from the requirement.

(c)2021 Syracuse Media Group, N.Y. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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