Officials say pandemic has exposed broadband access inequality

Jul 9, 2020

When New York went into lockdown this spring, people across the state were required to adapt overnight to online learning, work, and even doctor's appointments. But as Executive Director of the Rural Schools Association of New York State David Little notes, not everyone was able to do that successfully.

"You had situations where schools and hospitals were providing WiFi hotspots simply so that students could park their cars and parents would sit with students while they did their lessons all day," Little said. "I think we saw at the end of the school year parents and students checking out of the process like we’ve had enough of this."

A new report from Common Sense Media found that 27 percent of students in New York lack adequate access to the internet, which is more than 725,000 children. And although the school year is over, the problems presented by unequal access to broadband are not. Many school districts have announced plans to incorporate remote learning in their curriculum again this fall, even if only for a few days per week.

New York has been working to expand broadband to unserved areas of the state since 2015 with a $500 million program and claims to have covered 98 percent of New Yorkers, but Little said the state has failed to follow through with the cable companies that were hired to build this infrastructure.

"The state hasn't been strident in enforcing their contracts and enforcing the timetable that's in there and so everyone was caught napping during this pandemic," Little said.

Mohawk Valley Rep. Anthony Brindisi (D-Utica) notes that lack of access to high-speed internet doesn't just put rural students at a disadvantage; it's also a drag on rural economies.

"The global pandemic has exposed glaring problems in our broadband infrastructure," Brindisi said. "If we’re going to get serious about bridging the urban-rural divide and making sure that schoolchildren are not left behind then we have to work together to do a few things."

Brindisi is supporting a bill that would invest $80 billion nationally to expand high-speed internet to unserved areas as well as create an agency to oversee the project to avoid issues like New York has faced.

"That’s been a big problem in the past - the federal government hands out a number of grants for broadband expansion but it’s almost impossible to track where this money is going and if these providers are actually using it to expand service in underserved areas," Brindisi said. "This will put an end to that."