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EDITORIAL: It’s not fast enough

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TOM DiNAPOLI dropped by Hudson last week. He brought a lot of numbers and charts with him as you might expect from the person elected (over and over) state comptroller. Much of the news he brought sounded pretty good, not particularly controversial and plenty wonky. That may explain why it didn’t get much attention.

Those of us who still ask, “What’s on TV tonight?” already know that the response will be a stern reminder that we can watch anything we’re willing to pay for. But the question is not just a sign of a viewer’s age. It gets to the heart of the subject of Comptroller DiNapoli’s latest report, which uses census and other data to probe who can watch what, and where.

The report is titled: “Availability, Access and Affordability: Understanding Broadband Challenges in New York State”. What it finds is that despite considerable progress toward making high speed (also known as broadband) internet connections available to all New York residents who want them, there are still one million households that don’t have this service. To the surprise of no one, many of these households are living on incomes of less than $20,000 a year.

About that good news: this state has installed high-speed cable across the state, though some companies have been caught making unsupportable claims along the way to laying cable in over 98% of New York State. Only Connecticut has a higher rate of high speed cable available, and Connecticut is, well, you know, smaller.

The meaning of “available” is dodgy. What it seems to mean is that you can see the cable connected to the poles. That’s a start but it can cost a small fortune to have a service “provider” run cable up a lengthy driveway or along a sparsely settled road. But even if the cable goes close by your home, is there access to a service provider that supports high speed internet connections? And then the question boils down to this: Can you afford the monthly service fee?

If this were a matter of speculation, we could postpone addressing these cable issues until this country rebuilds our roads and bridges and other “real” infrastructure. But that would prove we have learned nothing about the necessity of using the internet to work, to learn and to interact online as a functioning member of society.

The point Mr. DiNapoli is making in this latest report is that we cannot afford to make what years ago was identified as the digital divide even more extreme than it is now. His data support the conclusion that affordable access to high speed cable service is unevenly distributed. That’s particularly clear when it comes to rural areas like most of this county.

Government officials at all levels are aware of this problem. The U.S. Senate has already approved an infrastructure bill that includes $65 billion for “broadband investments.” The House must vote on it by September 28. There are also proposals in Congress and in the state legislature to require service providers to lower the monthly cost of high speed service so it’s affordable for low income households. But in the state case, a federal judge has granted a request by the cable industry to block discount rates for low-income customers.

The more you know about the cable industry and the costs and the inequities of delivering this technology, the more complicated it gets. For instance, what is “high speed” internet service? The speed that is the goal of much of the planning now is much slower than the service that wealthy subscribers already have. It’s like building some cars that can go 90 mph and others that can only go no more than 30. Which one do you want?

There appears to be political support for expanding cable access and affordability. But it never hurts to write to or email your elected officials to remind them of your support for affordable high speed access for all.

For all the progress made there is still much to do. How much? There are 24,531 households in Columbia County; 3,679 of those households have no broadband access.

The comptroller’s report is at https://www.osc.state.ny.us/files/reports/pdf/broadband-availability.pdf

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