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Who can’t get high-speed Internet access? No one knows for sure

“Virtual” everything during the pandemic has turned high-speed internet from a necessity into a full-blown emergency. There’s broad consensus in both parties that everyone needs it.

A major stumbling block right now is figuring out who even has access to broadband and who doesn’t.

FCC: “fix our maps”

Most experts and politicians agree — the official maps the government uses to track broadband access aren’t accurate. Jessica Rosenworcel, a commissioner with the Federal Communications Commission recently critiqued the “slow-rolling efforts to fix our maps.”

“They were using census data that literally color in an entire census tract as being served by broadband if one person in the census tract had service,” says North Country state Sen. Dan Stec, R-Queensbury. He co-sponsored a bill, called the Comprehensive Broadband Connectivity Act, to pay $3 million for the state to create more accurate maps.

Stec says the pandemic has demonstrated high-speed internet is no longer a luxury. “Everyone is learning remotely. Everyone is telecommuting,” he said. “And on top of that you have something that no one was talking about before — we’ve got telehealth. Everyone is really starting to embrace this, and so you’ve got a real need for people to have access to health care via broadband.”

In fact, new uses for remote technology could be a major boon for rural places like the North Country, where distances are long and resources and population centers are scarce. But those developments are only possible if the people who need them have access to fast Internet connections.

So who’s going to pay for accurate broadband maps?

The Comprehensive Broadband Connectivity Act already passed the state Legislature last year. But Gov. Andrew Cuomo didn’t sign it, saying the money wasn’t in the budget. According to the Times Union of Albany, his office pointed out Congress has given the FCC $65 million to basically do the same thing.

Meanwhile, the state insists 98% of New Yorkers have high-speed internet access, but many people doubt that number is accurate. Even so, those in the 2%, like many in the North Country, are at a major disadvantage for everything from remote schooling to Zoom meetings to virtual mental health counseling.

Some North Country counties are taking matters into their own hands. St. Lawrence, Warren and Washington counties all have surveys underway to really find out who has broadband and who doesn’t.

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