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New York News

Upstate NY Broadband: A Long Way To Go

Broadband
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According to President Barack Obama, more than 90 percent of households headed by a college graduate have Internet access, while fewer than half of low-income households have similar access. The president says the "digital divide" puts these individuals at a disadvantage by limiting their educational and economic opportunities because the Internet is increasingly needed to find a job, finish homework or keep in touch with family and friends. The mayors of a handful of upstate cities agree, and are taking action.

Some argue that if you're going to give free Internet to some, why not give it to all? Others would be happy to settle for a choice between service providers, and equate competition with lower access rates. More than a hundred U.S. cities provide free Internet, and in June Google kicked off an initiative to bring free, fast Wi-Fi to cities around the world.

Albany has miles to go before it becomes a "free Internet city.” Mayor Kathy Sheehan says Albany is conducting a broadband study to "get a needs assessment."  "To figure out where we have good access, where we have gaps in that access. And then we also have to address the affordability issue."

Determining need and funneling funding are the two issues that may be dragging progress when it comes to expanding broadband:  back in August 2009, then-Mayor Jerry Jennings announced that Tech Valley Communications and the city had received a New York State grant of 625-thousand dollars to expand Albany FreeNet: a free wireless internet access network. Many WiFi transmitters appear as toaster-sized boxes with two antennas on each end, often strung along traffic signal wires.

Kevin O'Connor founded the provider First Light Fiber.  "The whole program was about 3 million dollars and what we did with that money Dave, is, we put up another 75 radios throughout the city. We had to build that network out and then provide funding to keep that network going for at least five years, and we just completed that five-year period last year."

But many buildouts, initiatives and programs later, the boundaries of Albany's free broadband footprint are pretty much the same. The initial deployment was driven by a noble cause: "We had a group of community-based organizations, included the Salvation Army, Trinity, the libraries, 100 Black Men, churches, where they agreed to provide computer labs and computer training for people in economically distressed neighborhoods, so that not only would they have access to the Internet through our network, but they would also have the skills necessary to get online and find jobs, and the rationale behind all of this was that many of our employers in this area, two of the largest at the time, were Albany Medical Center and the Golub Corporation, and you could only apply for those jobs online."

Kingston, nearly 60 miles south of Albany, suffers from the same lack of Internet service providers. But Mayor Shayne Gallo, eyeing citywide net access, makes the case that current construction projects offer a great opportunity to lay buried fiber, insisting the entire region would benefit if only Verizon would agree to make its FIOS product more widely available.  "The public has to understand that in 2006 Verizon was given a windfall, with rates and other breaks and tax  breaks to provide FIOS for the Hudson Valley. Now, finally, with the help of CWA and other business and citizens community groups. PSC will hold hearings on August 11th in Poughkeepsie. And the purpose of that hearing is to underscore what the requirements are under the 2006 statute here in New York State requiring them to provide and facilitate FIOS in upstate and the Hudson Valley."

Gallo says the only game in town is Time Warner Cable. That franchise agreement expires next year. He's rallying organizations and businesses to take action.   "We're gonna try to put together a bus trip with the Chamber of Commerce and my administration, to get business and professionals, citizens' community groups to go down to that hearing on August 11th, there's two sessions."

Gallo is urging the commission add another hearing to its schedule and hold it in Kingston.

Gallo and Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner recently attended a collective bargaining session in Westchester County with the Communications Workers of America, which is in a labor dispute with Verizon, in support of FIOS. Gallo says representatives of mayors in Albany, Beacon and Utica also attended in a show of solidarity.   Albany's Mayor Sheehan, who has regularly called Verizon since she was mayor-elect to let the company know the city is interested, keeps the door wide open:   "We're still pursuing all avenues for making sure that people have the speed that they need and the services that they want in Albany. We certainly would love to see FIOS here."

FIOS is available to residents in many Albany suburbs. Verizon did not return a call for comment.

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