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Opinion: To Fix Gaps, New York Must Map Internet Coverage

The state’s digital divide stems from a lack of data on the availability and cost of high-speed broadband Internet statewide, which is why Gov. Andrew Cuomo should sign the Comprehensive Broadband Connectivity Act.

(TNS) — Richard Berkley  is the executive director of the Public Utility Law Project, based in AlbanyBeth Finkel  is AARP New York State director. The statewide group has offices in New York CityAlbany and Rochester.

For the past 10 months, the Covid-19 pandemic has turned virtual work, learning and socializing into a permanent fixture of our lives — a trend that will likely continue for years to come. This has made access to reliable, high-speed internet service (also known as broadband) more of a lifeline and necessity than ever before. Yet the unfortunate reality is that millions of New Yorkers, from big cities to rural areas, are shut out from a modern high-speed internet connection.

In this new era of remote reliance, the implications of a lack of high-speed broadband become even more significant. The education and learning gap for underserved students who are already struggling will increase; businesses and homeowners will refuse to expand or relocate to areas with poor coverage; seniors will be unable to utilize telehealth; families will be unable to connect with loved ones online.

These are not imagined scenarios — they are the realities that tens of thousands of New Yorkers continue facing during this public health crisis, and they will persist long into the future unless we act now.

The root of this digital divide stems from a lack of data on the availability, quality and cost of high-speed broadband statewide. That is why it is critical Gov.  Andrew Cuomo  sign the Comprehensive Broadband Connectivity Act by the Jan. 30 deadline, which would transform the way we measure high-speed internet access across New York.

Currently, New York assumes coverage gaps based only on the Federal Communications Commission’s broadband access mapping. But since this mapping methodology only uses census-level data, it often overstates the true measure of broadband availability; in the most extreme example, the lone residence with good coverage in a census tract can falsely imply good coverage for everyone else in the tract. As a result, huge swaths of neighborhoods in any given census tract that have issues with connectivity are overlooked. This could be true even on a street by street level — some neighbors may have very different experiences connecting online.

The Comprehensive Broadband Connectivity Act would require the Public Service Commission (PSC) to not only compile and maintain additional data to capture these discrepancies, but also analyze quality and cost. Furthermore, the PSC would be required to present specific strategies to address the service gaps using the information gathered by the new maps.

These steps are critical because many ordinary New Yorkers are at the mercy of limited choices and high-costs when it comes to high-speed internet options. As a result, those in areas with coverage gaps often pay thousands of dollars to find private service providers in order to get online — and the process can take months. The vast majority of New Yorkers who cannot afford a hefty price tag to obtain service — disproportionately New Yorkers of color — are out of luck. These structural inequalities and disparities can only be tackled by reimagining how we understand and analyze broadband access, and this bill will arm us with more data and knowledge to do so.

In a show of bipartisan support this past summer, this legislation, sponsored by then-Assemblyman and now state Sen.  Sean Ryan , passed the state Senate and Assembly nearly unanimously, representing the need to urgently prioritize these issues.

The longer we delay addressing these problems head on, the farther many of our friends, family and neighbors will fall behind. But the solutions are clear, and we urge the governor to ensure all New Yorkers have the high-speed internet access they need and deserve.

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