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Another Effort To Provide Public Wi-Fi In Albany

WAMC Composite Image by Dave Lucas

This week, the Albany Common Council unanimously passed a measure designed to pave the way for free or low-cost municipal broadband service.

10th Ward Common Councilor Owusu Anane says his Local Law G will establish a commission of 10 people appointed by the mayor and the council to study the feasibility and examine the financial impact of developing a citywide municipal internet service.

It’s not the first such attempt.

Credit Albany FreeNet
Albany FreeNet Service Area

In August 2009, then-Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings announced that Tech Valley Communications and the city had received a state grant of $625,000 to expand Albany FreeNet, the city's open wireless internet network. In the 12 years that have passed there have been several studies aiming to bring free or low-cost high-speed Internet to residents. Anane:

"The one that I'm most familiar with is the one that was done with, under Mayor Sheehan, where they seem to be looking at some type of private-public partnership. This one is more so a city owned, run internet. What city seems to be leaning towards is effecting a partnership between them and a private sector or a third party who would install and effectively operate the system.”

Anane says 29% of Albany residents cannot work from home, apply for jobs online, recertify unemployment claims or request services online, because they cannot afford to have home internet access.

Albany Public Library Executive Director Scott Jarzombek was on the committee for the last broadband study.

"For me, this is a situation that was we all saw coming, and that we haven't really created an actionable plan. So you know, my hope is that we will do some math, and you know, we will do some study, but we already know the problem exists. I believe that the pandemic has really brought it to light. And I think we need to work really, really hard to do not just study it, and, you know, come to the conclusion, OK, this is an issue, but do a study that really comes up with conclusive ways that we can deal with the digital divide.”

Anane, a Democrat, says several underserved neighborhoods are located outside of the range of FreeNet, which is still in service.

"The most effective means of ensuring that everyone in Albany have access to high quality internet to establish a municipal run internet. Around the country cities, such as Chattanooga, Tennessee, have increased competition by creating their own internet service which generates faster speed, lower cost. And it's helping promote businesses and jobs all across Chattanooga.”

Anane says 29% of Albany residents cannot work from home, apply for jobs online, recertify unemployment claims or request services online, because they cannot afford to have home internet access. He says young students need broadband to succeed.

“The school district came out with a report estimated that 40% of families in the school district don't have access to the internet. While most of them are in the South End, West Hill and Arbor Hill neighborhoods, they are all across our city. There are kids in Pine Hills neighborhood that don't have access to the internet. And I believe that for the city to move forward, we have to ensure that we're offering all the resources and tools for our children, our future leaders, to succeed and having access to the internet is one way we could do that.”

Anane adds the process to establish the commission is underway.

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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