Community broadband advocates in New York rang in the new year celebrating Gov. Kathy Hochul’s announcement of a proposed $1 billion investment to beef up broadband in the Empire State. If state lawmakers move to enact the initiative, it would be what the Governor’s office describes as “the largest ever investment in New York's 21st century infrastructure.”
During her State of the State speech, Gov. Hochul unveiled the ConnectAll Initiative, which aims to “deliver affordable broadband to millions of New Yorkers and transform the state's digital infrastructure through new investments,” with municipal broadband as a centerpiece of the plan.
In announcing the new initiative – which would be funded with a combination of up to $300 million in state funds, $345 million in federal funds, with the rest to eventually come from the recently passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act – Gov. Hochul said:
The pandemic exposed how without broadband Internet, New Yorkers can be disconnected from school, work, and families. The ConnectALL Initiative will empower local municipalities and state agencies to set up nation-leading broadband infrastructure statewide, ensuring that every New Yorker has access to the Internet when they need it.
The plan not only creates a new ConnectALL Office, it directs the office to work in conjunction with other state agencies in overseeing the major components of the effort, following a six-part strategy that includes:
• The creation of a Broadband Assessment Program and Interactive Map. Administered by the state’s Public Service Commission, the Broadband Assessment Program would build the state’s “first ever, in-depth interactive broadband map” that will show where broadband infrastructure is available and how reliable it is across the state. This would be a central source of data, compiled by ECC Technologies, to help target where investment to expand broadband access is most needed.
• The establishment of three grant programs that will provide funding to “local municipalities and other entities to plan, engineer, and construct accessible broadband infrastructure.” One proposed grant program is for “Local Connectivity Planning and 21st Century Municipal Infrastructure,” which would provide funding for municipalities, non-profits, and other entities to build open access broadband infrastructure. The second program would focus on “Rural Broadband” and offer matching grants to boost broadband in rural parts of the state by expanding middle-mile and last-mile connectivity. The third grant program, a nod to wireless technologies, would fund “Connectivity Innovation” and provide competitive grants to entities “to pilot and construct creative, innovative, and new solutions pioneering future breakthroughs.”
• Increase access to the federal American Connectivity Program (ACP). That program provides a $30-a-month subsidy to eligible low-income families to pay for home Internet service. While the ACP is a federal program, Gov. Hochul is proposing that the state enlist New York’s Department of Public Service to oversee efforts “to ensure every eligible New Yorker can take advantage of the … program.” As reported by Broadband World News, participation rates in the FCC’s Emergency Broadband Benefit program (permanently extended and renamed the Affordable Connectivity Program) “lags below 30 (percent) of eligible homes in New York.”
• The creation of an Affordable Housing Connectivity Program. Under this program, the state’s affordable housing agency, New York Homes and Community Renewal (HCR) would work in partnership with Empire State Development, the state’s economic development agency, to retrofit all affordable housing buildings with broadband connections.
• The establishment of a Digital Equity Program. This part of the initiative envisions a three-pronged approach: Empire State Development would be charged with putting together a statewide digital equity plan, working with state and local agencies as well as private and nonprofit organizations; the establishment of grant program to support the work of community groups and organizations in developing the statewide digital equity plan; and the appointment of a Digital Equity Director to coordinate the state’s efforts as it relates to digital inclusion.
• The final piece of Gov. Hochul’s plan is a push to remove fees, outdated regulations, and the leveraging of state assets. These regulatory reforms would include: the elimination of “state use and occupancy fees that hinder rural broadband deployment” by directing the state Department of Transportation to exempt ConnectALL projects and reduce costs for participants in the program. The regulatory overhaul would also include streamlining the make-ready process; standardizing Right-of-Way access for wireless and fiber deployments with clear permitting timelines; and leveraging existing state fiber assets to support the expansion of middle-mile connectivity.
Potential Windfall for Municipal Broadband Projects
As the state works to expand broadband access and make high-speed Internet service more affordable, it’s worth noting the opposition the state’s previous efforts to tackle the affordability issue got from industry trade groups and the telecom giants.
Last year, former Gov. Andrew Cuomo unveiled a plan to require Internet Service Providers to offer a $15/month plan for low-income households. That was followed by state lawmakers passing the Affordable Broadband Act, only to be challenged with a lawsuit filed by CTIA, a trade association representing wireless ISPs, and America’s Communications Association. The lawsuit, which has yet to be settled, argues that the state does not have the authority to regulate the price of broadband service and that the legislation would also likely prevent incumbent providers from investing in upgrading their networks in the future.
However, as reported by Broadband World News, Gov. Hochul’s approach to tackling affordability challenge by focusing on expanding competition and boosting enrollment in the federal Affordable Connectivity Program, appears to be well-received by industry representatives opposed to Cuomo’s price regulation approach.
In response to the unveiling of the ConnectALL initiative, Jamie Hastings, CTIA Senior Vice President of external and state affairs told Broadband World News: “CTIA is pleased that Governor Hochul’s announcement today recognizes the critical role of wireless in closing the digital divide. We look forward to working with the Administration in the future to realize the goal of connecting all New Yorkers.”
Should the ConnectALL Initiative get the approval of state lawmakers, it would be a major victory for municipal broadband advocates in the state, providing a windfall for local communities to build its own infrastructure, introduce competition into the market, and address the challenges of affordability.
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Inline image of Gov. Kathy Hochul being sworn into office courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)
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