Private service or public utility?
Bill seeks to expand state regulation of internet providers
SARANAC LAKE — State legislators proposing a bill to regulate internet service providers as a public utility were in Saranac Lake on Tuesday to discuss the legislation with local officials
Sen. Sean Ryan, D-Buffalo, and Assemblywoman Nily Rozic, D-Queens, are sponsoring the bill, called the NY Broadband Resiliency, Public Safety and Quality Act. The bill would authorize the Public Service Commission to oversee broadband companies, issue rules and regulations for how they operate and evaluate the quality of their services, like how the PSC regulates utilities such as electric, gas, water and telecommunications.
Ryan said this would treat broadband as a public good rather than a private commodity.
Rozic said the bill is an effort to improve broadband availability, reliability and affordability in the state.
On Tuesday, they met with North Country legislators Assemblyman Billy Jones, D-Chateaugay, state Sen. Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, Franklin County Legislator Lindy Ellis and the state Comptroller’s Office, as well as representatives from local groups who rely on internet and broadband — St. Joseph’s Addiction Treatment & Recovery Centers and the Northern New York Library Network. Stec is a co-sponsor on the Senate bill.
Rozic said there are no plans for specific internet service provider regulations yet. This would just set up the system to make ISPs more accountable and transparent, she said. Ryan called it a “bare-bones bill.”
He said the state would still be working with companies that are private monopolies, but the PSC could ask them to open their books and make them reinvest in their systems.
Ryan said big ISPs have fought federal and state efforts to make expansion easier or required.
“They have stymied any regulation of their authority on a federal level,” he said. “The federal government failed to act.”
So some states are individually taking action to regulate.
Rozic anticipates big ISPs will push back against this bill, too, but she and Ryan both referred to broadband as a “bipartisan” issue. It didn’t matter if they were Republican or Democrat as they made the drive through the fall foliage up to Saranac Lake on Tuesday, their phones were disconnected for long periods at a time.
Jones said one-third of all the calls, emails and letters his office gets are about broadband or cell phone connection.
Lackluster broadband is an issue statewide, too.
Ryan said the city of Buffalo has internet “on paper,” but at certain times of the year as many as 40% of his constituents do not have it, and those that do have poor connection.
Rozic said in New York City storms knock out broadband access for large swaths of the population, leaving them without connection during emergencies.
The state of broadband
Mike Lefebvre is the director of the state Comptroller’s Office and said he wrote large portions of an expansive broadband report the office published in September. He said there are two types of digital divides — availability and access. Availability refers to whether an area has the infrastructure to physically provide a broadband connection to the people who live there. Access refers to if they can get a broadband subscription — which could be limited by cost, age and wages.
He said getting 100% availability is the first step.
Of the 10 regions in New York, the North Country has the lowest population and the highest percentage of its population without broadband available, 5%, according to the comptroller’s report.
The North Country also places highest in the number of households without broadband access, with 19.3%.
In Essex County, 6.1% of the population of 36,885 residents are without broadband availability. More than 20% of the 16,762 households in this county are without broadband access, according to the report.
In Franklin County, 4.7% of its 50,022 residents are without broadband availability and 23.5% of its 18,927 households are without broadband access.
ISPs fought a bill to have the state map out who has broadband last year, Jones said, and broadband availability has been overstated in the past.
“If I hear that we have ‘98% coverage’ one more time I’m going to lose it,” Jones said. “Because we don’t. We know we don’t.”
Speakers said the FCC’s map of coverage areas shows more areas having broadband connection that there are in reality. This is because of a flaw in the mapping process — if one structure in a census tract has broadband connection, the entire tract is labeled as having broadband connection.
Lefebvre said the FCC’s definition of high-speed broadband is also lackluster. It defines high-speed broadband as 25 megabits/second download speed and 3 megabits/second upload speed. These are old markers, he said, and the goal is now 100 Mbps. He said people are using the internet more than ever now.
The legislators’ bill says internet access is no longer a just a luxury or a tool: it’s a right. Several speakers pointed out that internet connection has become a crucial part of attending school, work or receiving telehealth services, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Access to high-speed broadband service is a necessity and essential to participation in the economy, education and civic life,” the bill reads.
Lefebvre said internet data consumption rose 75% between March 2020 to the end of the year.
Zachary Randolph, a chief clinical officer at St. Joseph’s in Saranac Lake, said telehealth is not only a convenience — it is a “life-sustaining necessity.”
“We’ve unfortunately found ourselves in a few precarious predicaments where people that are in need … have a dropped call,” Randolph said. “That’s probably one of scariest experiences that our direct care providers can have.”
Meg Backus, the executive director of the Northern New York Library Network, said libraries have been filling gaps through creative and adaptive programs but the broadband “nightmare” continues, and can only be ended with a sizeable infrastructure build-out, she said.
NNYLN might be the biggest internet provider in Essex, Franklin and Clinton counties, she said. Between its libraries’ in-house computers; WiFi service, which some use from the parking lots; loaned devices with internet capability pre-loaded; and mobile hot spots, she said libraries are the public’s spaces for internet access.
Still, despite these efforts, there’s gaps. She said when libraries offered free online tutors for students last year, many children couldn’t access them. The libraries sent 11 WiFi hot spots rotating through the three counties, but because even hot spots don’t work in some areas, some students had to travel for a while to reach them.
Reaching the last mile
Some lawmakers have been pushing for universal broadband for years.
Ryan compared this to the “last mile” build-out of electric and phone lines in the early 20th century. He said large infrastructure projects like this have been done this before.
But broadband availability has yet to fully reach rural areas. Lower demand in rural areas means lower revenue for the companies and lower incentives for them to expand there. When big providers refuse to expand, small ones fill in the gaps.
ADKAction founding member and broadband advocate Dave Wolff said small providers are the “life blood” of broadband in the North Country, but there are too many taxes and fees hindering small companies in New York.
Stec said, in the past, big companies were consulted when laws were written, but not small companies.
Stec and Jones said taxes like the state Department of Transportation’s right-of-way tax and a fiber optics tax are “killing providers.”
“You have parts of the state government that have provided incentives for network expansion and parts of the state government that are literally putting up roadblocks to that expansion,” Wolff said.
Ellis said costs for small providers rose sharply in recent years.
Stec suggested that the state make expansion cheaper and remove laws that disincentivize building. He pointed out that environmental regulations make building harder in the Adirondacks, but was unsure how to avoid that.
The broadband regulation bill is in Senate and Assembly committees now, and the legislature will take up the issue when it returns to session in January.