By MICHAEL HILL, Associated Press
ALBANY, NY (AP) – Frank Paxhia’s rural home in western New York is close to the high-speed Information Highway. But it has no access ramp.
The retiree, who lives in the town of Friendship, is one of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who remain on the wrong side of the digital divide. Many, like Paxhia, live in rural pockets beyond the reach of wired connections. Even more live in homes that lack a reliable broadband connection for other reasons, such as cost.
Governor Kathy Hochul’s administration is working to bring service to those without broadband with a $1.4 billion “ConnectALL” program that relies heavily on recently approved federal funds. As working and learning from home becomes more commonplace, the governor says affordable broadband has become a necessity.
“If you don’t have it, you choke and get held back,” she said at an event in Rochester this week. “Your children cannot apply for tuition assistance online. A small business cannot sell on e-commerce marketplaces because it does not have access to them. And we still have too many underserved areas.
At her family home about 60 miles southeast of Buffalo, Paxhia uses a cell phone with 4G service as a home access point because wired service stops within a mile of her address. He says the connection is too slow to stream TV shows and he has to leave home for some downloads.
“Whenever there’s a big project, I visit one of my family members who has…essentially a real broadband connection,” he said. “So whenever you need to update computers, iPad, phones, all of those large data transfers are done over a high-speed connection.”
More than one million New York households did not have access or subscription to home broadband in 2019, according to an analysis of census estimates by state comptroller Thomas DiNapoli. That number may have dropped since then due to pandemic-related connectivity programs.
Obtaining accurate and up-to-date broadband figures is difficult, in part due to the lack of detailed address-level coverage maps. There are even different definitions of high-speed internet, with some using download speeds of 25 megabits per second. Many analysts and public officials argue that a 100 Mbps threshold is more realistic given the needs of contemporary households.
New York’s broadband push is being helped by a federal infrastructure law approved in November, which includes about $65 billion in funding for high-speed internet infrastructure across the country. The measure tackles the problem of the cost of internet service with a $30 per month subscription subsidy for low-income households, which replaces a temporary subsidy approved during the pandemic.
New York was never able to enforce a new law last year requiring providers to offer high-speed internet to low-income households for $15 a month in an industry legal challenge. The state appealed.
In New York, the New York Citizens Committee for Children found that a large portion of households without the internet had annual incomes of less than $20,000, according to an analysis of census figures. These figures also show that many people in the city use mobile phones for the Internet.
Ruth Horry used to go with her three daughters to a McDonald’s or a Wendy’s to get Wi-Fi when they lived in a shelter in Brooklyn just before the pandemic. They could log into the shelter on their phones, but that didn’t allow for homework or even presenting lessons to her toddler daughter.
“Not everyone can use the phone at the same time. So having a kid in high school, one in college, and one in toddlerhood is a nightmare,” she says.
Horry’s family found accommodation in nearby New Jersey with a good internet connection. She works as a lawyer and tries to help people who face extra hurdles to seek help because they don’t have a proper device.
The number of people living beyond the reach of landlines is smaller, with many of them scattered in rural areas.
In rural Greene County in the Catskill Mountains, detailed mapping revealed about 4% of addresses are unserved by broadband, many of which are scattered over 200 miles (323 km) of roads in isolated mountain towns.
“These are the … most difficult roads to serve, the most expensive roads to serve,” said Warren Hart, deputy county administrator.
The state’s Broadband Program Office estimates that wired broadband capable of download speeds of at least 100 Mbps is unavailable to about 2% of homes in the state.
While some analysts say the uptime rate could be slightly lower, New York is expected to release address-level maps this spring that will give an accurate snapshot of coverage.
The cards are expected to help New York administer up to $800 million of federal infrastructure law for rural broadband. The ConnectALL program, which includes funding from other state and federal sources, will include three grant programs to provide funding to local municipalities for accessible broadband infrastructure.
The latest effort comes after the state helped extend wireline service to more than 174,000 homes, businesses and government buildings under a $500 million program announced in 2015 by the then government. Andrew Cuomo. This program relied on satellite Internet service in locations where the cost of operating the wired network was too high or where no other offers had been received.
Critics said satellite users may experience speed and reliability issues, although the next round of broadband expansion is expected to include areas now served by satellites.
“This will be the largest broadband investment in New York’s history and we believe it will extend coverage to the most rural and remote areas of the state,” the spokeswoman said. ‘Empire State Development, Kristin Devoe, in an email.
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