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Albany Moves Toward Municipal Internet Build-Out

Dave Lucas

After years of fits and starts, the city of Albany is on a faster track to consider providing its own internet service.

The city’s history with high-speed internet goes back years. In the fall of 2006, downtown residents got to sample municipal wireless internet service: Albany FreeNet was launched, and users were treated to one hour of web access daily. Service was expanded in 2009.

Kevin O'Connor founded FreeNet's provider First Light Fiber. Full disclosure, First Light has been a WAMC underwriter.

"The whole program was about $3 million and what we did with that money is, we put up another 75 radios throughout the city," O'Connor said. "We had to build that network out and then provide funding to keep that network going for at least five years."

Since FreeNet's inception there have been numerous studies looking at how to bring free or low-cost high-speed internet to residents.

In 2015, Mayor Kathy Sheehan announced Albany was conducting a broadband study.

"To figure out where we have good access, where we have gaps in that access," Sheehan said."And then we also have to address the affordability issue."

Years later, gaps remain – exacerbated by the pandemic and the reliance on working and schooling from home.

The most ambitious plan to date to connect Albany is the brainchild of 10th Ward Common Councilor Owusu Anane. Last week the Albany Common Council unanimously passed Anane's Local Law G, which will establish a commission of 10 people appointed by the mayor and the council to study the feasibility and financial impact of developing a citywide municipal internet service.

"We've been advocating for this to address the digital divide essentially since I was elected in 2018, and I'm glad that we are seeing progress," Anane said. "There's been several discussions and meetings and, you know, working with the administration and now ultimately to see it pass the Common Council that we're calling for individuals who might be interested in being part of the commission. This pandemic has quite frankly highlighted the disparities that exist in our society particularly when it comes to education and access to broadband."

Anane has long maintained that the most effective means of ensuring universal access to high quality internet is to establish a municipal run internet.

Although FreeNet is still active and is available in many underserved areas, 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 home internet access.

Last week, Mayor Sheehan's office issued a call for applicants to serve on Albany's new Commission on Municipal Internet Service.

"We're going to be interviewing individual residents in the next couple of weeks," Anane said. "And once we find the individuals to be to serve on the commission, we are looking to get a report back from the commission within 180 days which is essentially six months. We need individuals who are passionate about addressing the digital divide. We cannot continue to leave a group of generation and families, one third of our residents in the dark. We need to make sure everyone has access."

Anane says a recent mandate from the governor directing private companies provide access to the internet for $15 a month is a step in the right direction, but fears companies will tack on fees for equipment that could be upwards of $35 a month.

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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