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Digital Divide Persists: DiNapoli, Delgado Unpack Broadband Report

BINGHAMTON, NY (WSKG)—A report from New York Comptroller Tom DiNapoli released Tuesday found household broadband internet subscriptions statewide have increased, but availability still lags in many rural areas.

Speaking in Hudson, in Columbia County, DiNapoli said 1 million homes, or 14 percent of households statewide, were without broadband access as of 2019. Many of them earn less than $20,000 a year.

Under former Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration, the state committed to providing broadband-speed internet to every New Yorker by the end of 2018.

“There still is a digital divide, particularly in rural parts of the state,” DiNapoli said. “And for lower-income New Yorkers, who don’t have access or can’t afford a home subscription.”

Others cannot get access to high-speed internet services. The report found many, predominately rural, areas remain underserved, with either no availability of cable or fiber optic network services, or access to just one provider.

Below The Bare Minimum

According to the report, close to 10 percent of the population in both Steuben and Otsego Counties lives in areas without the necessary broadband infrastructure.

Even where broadband is accessible, Rep. Antonio Delgado (NY-19), whose district includes Otesgo County, said households often do not have the download speeds necessary to work or learn from home.

“I’ve heard first hand experts, during my small business committee, testify to this very point,” said Delgado, a Democrat, who joined DiNapoli in Hudson on Tuesday. “I asked an expert directly, ‘What should be a baseline download speed, the bare minimum?’ His response: 100 megabytes.”

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) defines broadband internet speeds as 25 megabytes per second (Mbps) of download speed. That could allow for browsing and streaming, the report explained, but multi-user households on simultaneous video calls require significantly greater bandwidth, as high as 250 or 1,000 Mbps.

While roughly 86 percent of New York households have access to broadband at speeds of at least 25 Mbps, according to the report, only 13.5 percent have home broadband subscriptions of at least 250 Mbps, and access to those speeds in some rural areas is limited.

The comptroller’s report recommended the state build and update broadband technology that can handle higher speeds, and make subscription plans more affordable.

Existing programs to do so have seen some success. New York contracted with private companies to expand services, and the federal government has provided more than 326,000 households with monthly $50 subsidies to purchase internet services.

Barriers To Effective Solutions

Despite improvements, people 65 and older still disproportionately lack access to broadband internet. DiNapoli’s report found this group is three times more likely than those 18 to 64 to not have internet subscriptions.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau (USCB) estimates from 2019, more than 20 percent of residents in Steuben and Otsego Counties were 65 or older, compared to just under 17 percent statewide.

“It’s a necessity for our seniors who use telehealth to receive the care that they need, and it's a necessity for our veterans who can find essential resources and connect with mental health providers online,” the congressman added.

Cable and fiber optic companies unwilling to install service on country roads have posed an obstacle, requiring homeowners to pay thousands of dollars to finance the hook ups.

Inaccurate mapping has also made meeting the need more difficult. The FCC repeatedly undercounted the number of households that have access to high-speed internet, and has used census data to conclude that if one house on a block has high-speed internet, then all of the houses on the block have access.

Delgado said that kind of count is not applicable to rural communities, where a census block could contain long stretches of woods, hills or fields between houses.

DiNapoli said New York should craft a detailed strategy to identify exactly where access to services is lacking, and whether the people who live there need subsidies to pay for an internet service.

He suggested state leaders put the $5 billion more than projected New York amassed from sales tax, income tax and other revenue toward increasing broadband access.