New York must finally close the digital divide

In our increasingly connected world, access to high-speed broadband is no longer a luxury; it’s a necessity. The COVID-19 pandemic offered a stark reminder of that fact, as many companies shifted to remote work, schools transitioned to virtual learning, and the internet helped keep us connected amid our isolation. As we continue to recover from the pandemic, ensuring every New Yorker can easily and affordably access the internet has never been more urgent.

Fortunately, help is on the way. Through the ConnectALL program, New York State is launching a bold effort to improve digital equity, promote a competitive market for internet service providers, and ensure all New Yorkers can benefit from enhanced connectivity.

The program is overseeing the disbursement of $1.3 billion in public funds, including $665 million in federal funds specifically dedicated to expanding broadband in unserved and underserved areas. It aims to connect all households and businesses in New York to the internet by 2030 and expand cellular network coverage to more rural areas throughout the state.

This program could be a game-changer for the city, and especially the Bronx, which lags other boroughs in broadband access. Roughly 38% of all Bronx residents don’t have a home broadband connection — significantly higher than the citywide average of 29.5%. Without this access, we can’t fully enjoy the economic, educational, social, and civic benefits the internet provides.

As the state prepares to solicit bids for spring of this year from internet service providers and government entities, we have to ensure that the recipients of this funding have a proven track record of delivering for the residents of our borough, our city, and our state.

Too often in the past, we have seen companies make lofty promises and then fail to follow through. To take a prominent example, in 2016 Charter Spectrum, the largest cable provider in the state, merged with Time Warner Cable. The state approved the merger on the condition that it connect 145,000 households statewide to broadband. But Charter didn’t follow through, and in 2018 the state moved to revoke the company’s license after finding it had failed to meet its benchmarks.

Although Charter and the state later reached an amended agreement that allowed them to continue operating in New York, Charter has demonstrated a troubling pattern of misleading the public about its broadband obligations. Separate litigation initiated by the New York attorney general’s office in 2017 alleged that it was falsely inflating its internet speeds to consumers by as much as 80%.

These episodes — as well as Charter’s recent carriage dispute with Disney, which disrupted programming on marquee channels like ESPN and ABC for roughly 1.5 million subscribers across the state last fall, prompting the governor to demand the company offer rebates to all affected customers — raise serious questions about the company’s commitment to serving all New Yorkers fairly.

Our organization, People’s Choice Communications, was founded on the simple notion that the affordability and reliability of your broadband connection shouldn’t depend on the whims of an unaccountable corporate actor.

Launched in the summer of 2020 by former Spectrum workers who left the company amid a years-long strike, we have helped connect public housing residents, supportive housing residents, and public school students to our network. Our unique model empowers the customer to take control of their digital destiny by inviting them to participate in education and training opportunities.

This work is enabled in part by federal subsidies like the Federal Communication Commission’s Affordable Connectivity Program, which offers a $30 discount to eligible customers, like public housing residents. These programs are a lifeline for low-income New Yorkers who might not otherwise be able to afford home broadband.

Just as important as the cost of your broadband connection is the type of connection. That’s why the ConnectALL program aims to prioritize expanded coverage through fiber optic cables. Often considered the gold standard in modern communications infrastructure, fiber allows for a more efficient, reliable connection than alternatives such as coaxial cables, and reduces the risk of data throttling. Fiber is also more resilient to extreme weather conditions, meaning it’s less likely to be damaged by heavy rain or lightning strikes.

All of this might sound in the weeds — but if you’ve ever experienced slow download speeds, or a poor video resolution on your TV, you know firsthand just how important a reliable connection can be.

As the state prepares to receive bids beginning next month and make its initial grant awards later this year, it is critical that they include past performance in its selection criteria for bidders. With the ConnectALL program, we have an exciting opportunity to close the digital divide. We must make sure we get it right.

Walcott is founder of People’s Choice Communications, a worker-run internet service provider.

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