ALBANY COUNTY — For the first time, New York State has compiled municipal internet connectivity data and presented it publicly in the form of a card, which confirms in numbers what many already knew by anecdote: rural hilltowns are behind in both the internet and technology, as are parts of the cities of Albany, Cohoes and Watervliet.
According to the map, which was generated by the New York State Department of Education, New York State Library, Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Community Tech NY and the John R. Oishei Foundation, approximately 15% of residents in the Hilltowns 4,264 households are without the Internet for one reason or another, whether it is lack of Internet subscription or lack of Internet-enabled devices.
About the same proportion of children under 18 do not have internet access, with the majority of them not having broadband rather than devices.
The map also shows that income is a major predictor of connectedness, as the connection rate for each category of household income above $35,000 per year in annual income is over 80%, while the rate for the category $20,000 to $35,000 is 69.4%. and the rate for the $10,000 to $20,000 category is 35.3%. However, for households with an income of less than $10,000 per year, 66.4% have broadband.
Approximately 13% of Albany County households overall do not have home internet. Guilderland and New Scotland, both of which are within Enterprise’s coverage area, each have connection rates of around 90%.
Of the Hilltowns, Rensselaerville is in the worst shape, with 9% of its total population without a computer at home and 16% without an internet connection despite having a computer. Bern comes next, with about 9% of its population without a computer and 10% without the Internet. In Westerlo, 9% of residents do not have a computer and 5% do not have the Internet. In Knox, 2% of residents do not have a computer and more than 7% do not have the Internet.
The data in this map comes from the United States Census Bureau, making it very likely that the internet problem in the Hilltowns is not being properly captured, as many residents who technically have both a web-based device and an internet connection suffer from slow speeds that make it difficult to enjoy either of these things.
Last year, Westerlo adopted a comprehensive new plan that found 61% of survey respondents either did not have internet access at home or were unhappy with its speed. Bern-Knox-Westerlo Superintendent Timothy Mundell announced in 2020 that 30% of Bern-Knox-Westerlo students had inadequate internet.
Westerlo applied for (and is still vying for) a $1.7 million broadband grant through Congressman Paul Tonko’s office, hoping to use that federal money to cover the cost. high cost of installing cables all over the city, which Internet service providers will not do themselves because low population density means low return on investment.
Since the low population density and difficult terrain of the Hilltowns means lower broadband availability, many households rely on satellite internet connections instead. According to the Digital Equity Map, just over 14% of households use satellite, compared to less than 3% of households countywide.
A federal initiative has invested $885 million in Elon Musk’s SpaceX company so it can expand its own satellite internet service across the country, including in the Hilltowns, as part of a broader effort to to incentivize Internet service providers to bridge the connectivity gap.
It’s ambitious, lucrative solutions like this and Westerlo’s grant application that Hudson Valley Wireless CEO Jason Guzzo told The Enterprise two years ago would be key to solving the internet problem for rural communities.
But, he said, part of the problem with getting federal funding is that connectivity is tracked at the census tract level, and census tracts — especially in rural areas — can be large and irregular in shape. As long as one household in an area has an internet connection, the entire area is considered served, and those areas are overlooked in favor of those that are more obviously disconnected.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of the Internet in everyday residential and professional life, and in municipal reach. When local government meetings moved to a digital space, residents of the Hilltowns were very concerned that they would end up in a loop with residents who couldn’t log on.
And it’s an ongoing problem, since the only way to properly assess an area’s connectivity rate is through surveys, like the one employed by the Westerlo Comprehensive Plan Committee, which are expensive when they must be conducted by non-digital means. . Additionally, Westerlo’s survey, which had to be completed by hand and mailed back or dropped off, only had a 30% response rate, which is 455 out of about 1,500 households in the city. .
While the state’s digital equity map likely understates the seriousness of the Internet problem on the Hill, it does at least act as a stepping stone for small towns that would otherwise have enormous difficulty even describe the problem, not to mention start taking the big steps needed. to solve it.