Broadband access is increasingly necessary for everyday activities and especially vital for businesses, remote workers, online education and health care appointments, but Empire State Development’s (ESD) New NY Broadband Program has fallen short of its mission to bring universal broadband access to New Yorkers, according to an audit by State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli.
“The New NY Broadband Program did not meet its goal to close the internet gap because of poor planning and execution,” DiNapoli said. “As my office’s audit found, the program took years longer than promised and supplied many communities with slow, satellite-based internet that is inadequate for today’s needs. The state is now embarking on another effort to provide all New Yorkers with broadband access called ConnectALL and it is my hope it learns from the issues we found in this audit so they are not repeated.”
The program was created in 2015 to make high-speed (100 megabits per second or Mbps) broadband service “universal” in all but the most remote areas of the state by 2018. ESD’s Broadband Program Office (BPO) manages the program, which was funded with $735 million in mostly state funds, but also included private and federal matching dollars.
The money was targeted to bring access to 255,994 unserved and underserved households. Due to delays, as of March 2021, not all of those households had received access to service. Further, nearly one-third of the households that were connected to broadband — 78,690 households in remote areas — were given broadband access using satellite technology, which has a maximum download speed of 25 Mbps and whose signal can be weakened by rain or snow. In most cases that speed is not adequate for today’s commonplace needs, and especially so in homes or businesses with multiple devices connected to the internet that are being used at once.
Although many households were connected, many still were not by the announced 2018 completion deadline, with more than half of the program’s 126 projects delayed by as long as 48 months.
The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the fact that many New Yorkers lacked access to high-speed broadband or found it too expensive. It also highlighted the inequity of access, with Black and Hispanic households being less likely to have high-speed internet service than white households.
As New York continues to rebuild from the pandemic’s impact, nine projects under the program still await completion, including four affecting 12,400 households that won’t have access until December 2022.
In addition to the projects in the works, the BPO reported that 14,000 New York households remained unserved or underserved for broadband access as of March 2021. BPO stated that most of these were downstate households that had been mistakenly deemed to have access based on Federal Communications Commission (FCC) data.
The FCC relies on self-reported information from Internet service providers (ISPs) regarding where they have completed access. But ISPs may report that an entire census block is served by broadband even if it only offers a connection of 25 Mbps service to one location on that block. In remote areas, a census block can encompass hundreds of square miles. As a result, BPO’s estimate that 98.95% of New York has access to high-speed broadband internet is an overstatement. An October 2021 estimate by BroadbandNow found that FCC data for New York was off by 20% and that 1.3 million New Yorkers lacked access to high-speed Internet.
The audit noted that in September 2021, the Executive announced the launch of a mapping survey in the state to examine the quality and availability of broadband access. In January 2022, the Executive announced a $1 billion ConnectALL public-private initiative to deliver affordable broadband to millions of New Yorkers.
DiNapoli’s audit recommended that ESD and BPO:
- Work with ISPs to complete outstanding projects as soon as possible;
- Use a disclaimer when reporting the percentage of broadband availability in the state to reflect limitations in the data’s accuracy; and
- Ensure that future state-funded projects are based on accurate broadband availability data; and that technologies that provide high-speed, reliable internet are used.
In its response, ESD disagreed with some of the findings of the audit. The agency’s response is available in the audit.
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