In August 2009, then-Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings announced that Tech Valley Communications and the city had received a state grant of 625-thousand dollars to expand Albany FreeNet, the free wireless Internet network. Now, six years later, efforts to bring free or low-cost high-speed Internet to the residents of Albany have been moving along at dial-up speed.
When people get a taste of technology, they hunger for more. Officials say internet access and the computer skills to exploit it are critical in today's economy: NOT a luxury but a necessity. "The means by which we all access and utilize broadband are of course very diverse, but so are the barriers to realizing its full potential." That's Jeff Mirel from Bloomberg Companies, speaking at Albany City Hall Thursday, as the city, along with community partners, announced formal creation of a Broadband Initiative Working Group along with the release of a Request For Proposals for a study to review the city’s broadband needs. Here's Mirel from 2010 when he represented Albany FreeNet: "We're talkin' about supermarkets and retail, the de facto first interview is becoming the ability to apply for a job online because computer and Internet technology is so pervasive in our culture and in our commerce today."
The technology has taken a giant leap thanks to smartphones and tablets, while public access has taken a backseat.
For years, Albany's downtown core neighborhoods have enjoyed free Internet access via Wi-Fi. For the rest of the city, 2015 might as well be 2010, because the expanded Internet hinted at five years ago never much materialized.
Albany's quest to empower citizens with net access might finally be getting a much-needed boost: that longstanding argument that disadvantaged or low-income people should have free access can now be applied to almost everyone: Mayor Kathy Sheehan says broadband is "...becoming not just a want, but a need, as we look to expanding both educational opportunities, business opportunities and access to what is going on in the city. We've become so dependent on communicating, using this technology, so we have to be sure that everybody has access."
For households outside the FreeNet area, it's not uncommon to pay steep monthly fees for cable Internet access. And there are still those who use the dated dial-up method through a landline telephone.
There's one place residents citywide have come to count on for free broadband: their local library branches. Albany Public Library Executive Director Scott Jarzombek says the facilities have become digital safety nets, bridging the digital divide by providing computers, printers, internet access, and Wi-Fi connections and teaching people how to use these technologies. "Every day at the Albany Public Library we bridge the digital divide, help people with doing everything from learning how to do a resume for the first time, to applying for their first job. We teach them how to use all technology with one-on-one assistance, classes and workshops. Albany Public Library's excited about the widening digital safety net by participating in the city's project to consider the feasibility of providing broadband Internet service to Albany residents."
Among the study's goals: look into the strengths and weaknesses of Internet currently available; recommend steps to ensure all businesses in Albany have the connections necessary to plug in; and determine what should be done to ensure Albany has a broadband network that is affordable and provides high-speed access for all.
There could be trouble brewing: According to the Center For Public Integrity, companies like Time Warner Cable and have spent millions of dollars to lobby state legislatures, influence state elections and buy research to try to stop the spread of public Internet services that can offer faster speeds at cheaper rates without a steep cable bill.
The companies have succeeded in getting laws passed in 20 states that ban or restrict municipalities from offering Internet to residents.
Time Warner did not return a call seeking comment in time for broadcast.