TOMPKINS COUNTY, NY—The key to closing the digital divide that affects communities without access to high-speed Internet has been an accurate view of the broadband service gaps.
The ConnectALL Office in New York in June released what they called an address-level broadband map for the state. It is one of the first major actions of the new office, which was established to renew the state’s efforts in addressing broadband access problems.
ConnectALL’s new digital tool is ambitious in its scope, seeking to specify which addresses are served by which ISPs, the technology companies use to provide service, and the pricing for that service. The maps aren’t perfect, but they are in-depth, interactive and allow users to update the information presented in them, making it a living resource for individuals as well as local and state governments to refine.
With these new statewide cards, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) broadband access cards, which were the previous standard bearer, have effectively been blown out of the water. Although the FCC’s cards were a pretty low bar. They have had almost constant criticism over the years from proponents of improved broadband equity, and an increased level of public criticism with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic for being wild”inaccurate“and just”worthless†
The FCC’s broadband access cards were based on data provided to the agency by Internet service providers (ISPs), but those companies were allowed to file an entire census block as served if they gave Internet access to only one address in that block. In rural areas, census blocks can cover areas that are tens or hundreds of square miles, leaving a very inaccurate picture of which households do and do not have broadband internet access.
The ConnectALL initiative fills the shoes of the Broadband Office Program (BPO). Founded in 2015, the BPO was started by the Empire State Development Program, although this effort to address digital inequalities fell far short of its target, with New York State Auditor Tom DiNapoli calling it a case of “bad planning and execution” mentioned in a recently published audit†
“The state is now embarking on another effort to provide broadband access to all New Yorkers called ConnectALL,” Dinapoli said, “and I hope it learns from the issues we found during this audit so they don’t happen again.”
Using the FCC’s maps, the BPO estimated that 98.95% of New York had access to adequate broadband services. The first estimate from ConnectAll’s map is that 97.4% of state addresses have fast service. However, the Comptroller’s Office quoted a 2021 estimate of: BroadbandNow stating that the FCC’s broadband access data had declined by as much as 20%, leaving the number of New Yorkers with access to high-speed Internet only 78.95%.
The fact that the ConnectALL cards are updatable is where the potential lies for its usefulness and longevity as a resource. The data that forms the basis of the card is collected from ISPs by the Public Service Commission.
Ali Mohammed, the senior director of the New York Power Authority’s Digital Transformation Office, is leading ConnectALL’s pilot projects statewide. He said there will be discrepancies in the card, but the ConnectALL Office compares the broadband access data on the cards with the actual access households have in its pilot projects, as in the town of Nichols in Tioga Countyto get an idea of how the maps refer to the situation on the ground.
The hope now is to get the maps as accurate as possible, but Mohammed said, “It’s going to be a while before we get there.”
Broadband Action in Tompkins County
After years of ineffective action and inaction on the part of large private companies and the federal government to close the gaps in broadband access, local governments have increasingly risen to the challenge. But in many cases, the lack of detailed data has hampered progress in tackling broadband access.
However, the City of Dryden is committed to creating a council-owned and operated broadband network and internet service, largely circumventing the need for an accurate map of service gaps.
“We don’t want to do what most public projects do, which is to fill gaps. We want to compete in the private sector,” said Jason Leifer, Dryden Town supervisor, adding that the municipal broadband project aims to improve service levels, lower the price and reach unserved members of the community.
The ConnectAll map lists 96.4% of Dryden’s residents as served, although Dryden’s deputy city supervisor, Dan Lamb, said his educated guess would bring that percentage closer to 90%.
Lamb, who had initially doubted the cards would pass, thinks New York made the landing in creating a valuable resource.
“My expectation was that it would fail. I just thought it was too ambitious, and we’ve heard things like this from the government before, but I’m deeply impressed with what they’ve done,” Lamb said.
For the Tompkins County legislature, the data is much more valuable. The county’s goals were to fill in the gaps that ISPs fail to reach, unlike Dryden’s municipal-wide approach.
Nick Helmholdt, Tompkins County chief planner and program director, called the new ConnectALL cards “an important step forward.”
In January, the province announced plans for a “driving investigation” throughout Tompkins County to get an accurate idea of where the broadband gaps are. The ConnectAll maps will serve as a reference for the county’s future work, and Helmholdt said he hopes to get hold of the raw data sets that form the basis of the maps the state has assembled from ISPs.
“No map is perfect, and once the map is published, it becomes obsolete,” Helmholdt says. “So we will continue to work with our people at the state to make sure things are right there, if we find any discrepancies.”
Continuing to validate ConnectAll’s maps will be important to local governments, as future government funding for broadband infrastructure will be determined by the level of need the maps represent. On top of the $1 billion that Governor Kathy Hochul spent in her 2022 state speech on statewide broadband initiatives, New York will receive a $65 billion cut in federal funding to be distributed among states to provide broadband access.
Leifer said grant money is likely the only reason the ConnectALL cards will be especially relevant to the city of Dryden in the future. Although the cards, in Lamb’s eyes, justify what Dryden is pursuing.
“The cards are good, but they’re not perfect,” Lamb said. “And that points to the need for more municipal involvement in broadband services. It kind of confirms what we’re doing and Dryden, because unless you have someone on the street level who really knows the community, you’re not really going to have services available to everyone.