Albany, New York Studying Internet Access Needs

The city of Albany, New York (pop. 100,000) recently hired a consulting firm to study the high-speed Internet needs of the community, including possibly the municipality building its own fiber optic network.

The study will, among other things, “assess the strengths and weaknesses of Internet access currently available in the city,” according to a city news release

According to Albany officials, an estimated 30 to 50 percent of children in Upstate New York communities live in households that cannot afford broadband service in their homes.

The Albany study will also “investigate the extent of a digital divide in Albany that prevents some residents from getting fast and affordable Internet service at home or elsewhere,” and “recommend a prudent path, including funding opportunities, to ensure the City has a broadband network that is affordable and provides high-speed Internet access for all.”

Albany expects the consultant to complete its work before this summer. The Albany Community Development Agency is contributing $20,000 toward the study with the city pursuing additional funding.  

We asked officials at Albany City Hall if the feasibility study will include the city possibly building its own municipal network.  An official from Albany’s Broadband team responded, “The language in the broadband feasibility study purposely did not include specific solutions.” But, they added, “One of options certainly could be a municipal fiber network.”

Affordable Internet Service a Problem

In a January 22, 2016 press release, Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan said: 

 “Whether you’re a student or a business owner, we live in a world where high speed connections are essential to success. This study will provide the lay of the land of broadband in Albany and outline how we can move broadband service forward in a cost-efficient and timely manner, making sure we bridge any digital divide that prevents residents, especially schoolchildren, from getting affordable and fast broadband access.”

Study Follows Working Group Initiative 

The city’s study comes in the aftermath of work from Albany’s Broadband Initiative Working Group, which is comprised of representatives from the Albany Public Library, the Downtown and Central Ave BIDS, the City School District of Albany, Green Tech Charter School, the Albany Housing Authority, the Albany Promise, and the Center for Technology in Government at the University at Albany, as well as business leaders, according to the city. 

Councilman Still Seeking Commission

Despite the new feasibility study, Albany Councilman Judd Krasher told us he is still pursuing his ordinance proposal to form a city commission comprised of residents whose specific charge would be studying the feasibility of the municipality building its own high-speed Internet network. Krasher contended Mayor Sheehan’s Working Group really hasn’t given much consideration to a municipal built and owned network. 

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“I believe that Internet access is a necessity for people and not a privilege,” Krasher said. “For many people, it (Internet access) is out of reach.” 

Krasher suggested Albany might want to participate with one or more neighboring towns to build and operate a joint municipal high-speed Internet network.  His commission proposal comes out of frustration with Albany’s existing Internet service.

“Time Warner has a monopoly,” Krasher said.  “I don’t know any of my constituents who are happy with their customer service and pricing. They are not pleased with what they are getting from Time Warner.”

Internet speeds in Albany are also lackluster, with the average download speed just a shade over 20 Megabits per second (Mbps), Krasher said. And there are wide pockets of areas in Albany where upwards of 50 percent of poor residents cannot afford to have any Internet service, he said. In Albany, about 30 percent of the city’s population is black with 8 percent Hispanic and 4 percent Asian. 

Major Gaps Exist in New York’s Internet Service  

This latest news from Albany comes as major gaps persist in high speed Internet access in many parts of New York. Previously, MuniNetworks.org reported that FreeNet, Albany’s free wireless network, received a $625,000 state grant in 2009 earmarked to expand its service. But neither FreeNet nor Time Warner Cable and Verizon, the two biggest providers of broadband service in Albany, provides the fast, affordable, reliable connectivity a municipal fiber-based network could provide. 

We also noted that at hearings last year before the New York State Public Service Commission (PSC), political leaders and consumers from the cities of Poughkeepsie, Buffalo, and Bethlehem expressed particular frustration with Verizon’s unwillingness to build its FIOS (a FTTH) fiber service out to underserved parts of New York. In some cases they asked the state’s Public Service Commission to strengthen regulations and require private companies to bring better Internet service statewide.

Across his state, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has set a goal of bringing broadband to all New Yorkers by 2018.