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New York promised universal internet. For many upstate rural residents, it never came

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announces plans for New York to become the first state to offer universal access to high-speed Internet in 2016. (Provided photo — David Sommerstein, NCPR)

Since Patsy LaFlam’s local library and senior center closed at the start of the pandemic, she’s developed a new mental map of places where she can access the internet.

“The city of Plattsburgh, the Trinity Park is a hotspot, the fire station in Altona, which is about 25 to 30 minutes from here is a hotspot,” she lists. “CVPH hospital … Lowe’s! Lowe’s is a hotspot.”

Broadband internet infrastructure hasn’t yet arrived to her and around 50 other houses on her road, in a community outside Plattsburgh. She’s looked into a personal wireless hotspot that gets internet from cell towers, but balked at the cost.

“It’s very hard to to get any internet here,” LaFlam says.

For many in the North Country without access to broadband internet at home, the pandemic has turned what was once an inconvenience into a full-fledged crisis.

“I am going to say there isn’t a day that goes by that it isn’t brought up in some kind of conversation,” says newly elected state Assemblyman Matthew Simpson. Simpson has served as president of the Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages and supervisor of the town of Horicon in Warren County.

When people started working and studying from home this spring, he heard from teachers looking for a high-speed internet connection and from doctors whose patients couldn’t connect to telemedicine appointments, “asking, ‘when is the state going to do something about this?'”

A state campaign for universal access

In 2016, Gov. Andrew Cuomo gave an address in Potsdam, standing behind a sign reading “Broadband For All” and vowing to achieve universal access to high-speed internet across New York state by 2018.

“It does my heart good when government actually sees a problem, and engages in the problem, and comes up with a solution, and then gets it done in real time,” Cuomo said.

Today, the Empire State Development Corporation estimates broadband has reached 98% of the state, with the remainder likely concentrated in more remote areas like the North Country. The agency did not respond to a request for county-level data or information on how its coverage figure is calculated.

Simpson and others say that the state has recently added its own obstacle to expanding coverage with a new Department of Transportation fee included in the last state budget that adds to the already high costs of filling in the remaining gaps in service.

Michael Santorelli, director of the Advanced Communications Law & Policy Institute at New York Law School, notes that for companies to operate in rural areas like the North Country, “the amount of money it takes to build out these systems and to operate and maintain them over the long term doesn’t make sense.”

“They might be sparsely populated,” he explained, “or geographically remote.”

The state and federal governments have offered subsidies to try and bridge the profitability gap. The program Cuomo touted in Potsdam, New NY Broadband, was created in 2015 and put $500 million towards the goal of reaching all underserved areas.

“The deadline has moved back a little bit; I think that is because it is a very complex thing to do,” said Santorelli. “Building these networks out in [areas that are] remote, challenging, especially … like the Adirondacks and elsewhere where there might be any number of challenges popping up, environmental concerns.”

But while the state is trying to be the solution, it has also created a new part of the problem, says David Wolf, of the Watertown-based Development Authority of the North Country.

The right-of-way tax authorized in the latest budget adds another cost to running broadband lines along state roads, including his own organization, which builds broadband infrastructure it leases to internet service providers.

“The only way to get in and out of a lot of the Adirondacks is through state roads,” Wolf notes, and while the new state levy exempts projects built with New NY Broadband funds, it includes many past projects Wolf has built with older state grants.

He calculates these state fees could cost DANC up to $1.6 million a year.

“It would be 25% of our total budget,” Wolf says, money he would otherwise put toward more infrastructure investments. He has already put two major projects on hold.

A new urgency amid the pandemic

The Watertown Daily Times identified several more disrupted projects. In an editorial written during the pandemic, while kids are doing remote schooling, the paper called the fee “a tax on first-graders who want to learn.”

State lawmakers Sen. Joseph Griffo, Sen. Patty Ritchie, Sen. Betty Little and Assembly Mark Walczyk sent a letter in June asking the governor to “reconsider and waive” the right-of-way tax, writing that “Albany should be doing everything possible to build a climate for accessible broadband, not discouraging it.”

Wolf said normally this type of outcry might have gotten the fee repealed, “but, with the budget crunch that New York State has, I don’t think that they’ll eliminate it or even reduce it tremendously.”

The New York State Division of the Budget declined to respond to questions about whether the state is undermining its own goals.

“These fees help ensure safe and appropriate installation of fiber on publicly owned property as well as protect the safety of workers and the traveling public,” Department of Transportation spokesman Joe Morrisey says.

Marco DiGirolomo, who runs technology training at Senior Planet North Country, observes that internet access is critical to health and safety of older adults during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Doing the online grocery shopping or going to the doctor’s, but also becoming more socially connected with friends and seeing people,” he notes, “because it does get very isolating when you kind of don’t have that in-person contact anymore that you’ve been used to for your entire life.”

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