TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—Key to addressing the digital divide affecting communities without access to high speed internet has been an accurate picture of where gaps in broadband service exist.
New York’s ConnectALL Office released what they dubbed an “address-level” broadband access map for the state in June. It’s one of the first major actions of the new office, which was established to renew the effort the state has attempted to make in addressing issues of broadband access.
ConnectALL’s new digital tool is ambitious in its scope, attempting to detail which addresses are served by what ISPs, the technology that companies are using to provide service, and the pricing for that service. The maps aren’t perfect, but they’re in-depth, interactive, and allow users to update the information presented in them, making it a living tool that individuals as well as local and county governments can refine.
With these new statewide maps, the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) broadband access maps, which were the previous standard bearer, have effectively been blown out of the water. Though the FCC’s maps were a pretty low bar. They have faced nearly constant criticism from advocates of improved broadband equity over the years, and a heightened level of public criticism with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic for being wildly “inaccurate,” and just plain “crappy.”
The FCC’s broadband access maps were based on data submitted to the agency by Internet Service Providers (ISP), but those companies were allowed to file an entire census block as served if they provided internet access to just a single address on that block. In rural areas census blocks can cover areas that are tens of or hundreds of square miles, creating a deeply inaccurate picture of which households do or don’t have access to broadband internet.
The ConnectALL initiative is filling the shoes of the Broadband Office Program (BPO). Founded in 2015, the BPO was started by the Empire State Development Program, though this effort to address the digital inequities fell far short of its goal, with New York State’s Comptroller Tom DiNapoli calling it a case of “poor planning and execution” in a recently published audit.
“The state is now embarking on another effort to provide all New Yorkers with broadband access called ConnectALL,” stated Dinapoli, “and it is my hope it learns from the issues we found in this audit so they are not repeated.”
Using the FCC’s maps, the BPO estimated that 98.95% of New York had access to adequate broadband service. ConnectAll’s map’s initial estimate is that 97.4% of state addresses have high-speed service. However, the Comptroller’s Office cited a 2021 estimate from BroadbandNow stating that the FCC’s broadband access data was off by as much as 20%, placing the figure of New Yorkers with access to high speed internet as low as 78.95%.
The fact that the ConnectALL maps can be updated is where the potential lies for its usefulness and longevity as a tool. The data that forms the basis of the map was collected from ISPs by the Public Service Commission.
Ali Mohammed, the Senior Director of the New York Power Authority’s Digital Transformation Office, is leading ConnectALL’s Pilot projects across the state. He said that there will be discrepancies in the map but the ConnectALL Office is referencing the broadband access data on the maps against the actual access households have in its pilot projects, like in the Town of Nichols in Tioga County, to get an idea of how the maps reference to the situation on the ground.
The hope is now to get the maps to be as accurate as possible, but Mohammed said, “It’s going to take a while before we get there.”
Action on Broadband in Tompkins County
After years of ineffective action and inaction on the part of large private corporations and the federal government to close the gaps in broadband access, local governments have increasingly been approaching the challenge. But, in many cases, the lack of granular data has impeded progress on addressing broadband access.
The Town of Dryden, though, has committed to creating a municipally owned and operated broadband network and internet service, which by and large circumvents the need for an accurate map of services gaps.
“We’re not looking to do what most public projects do, which is fill in gaps. We want to compete in the private sector,” said Dryden Town Supervisor Jason Leifer, adding that the municipal broadband project is aimed at improving the level of service, decreasing the price, in addition to reaching unserved members of the community.
The ConnectAll map lists 96.4% of residents in the town of Dryden as served, though Dryden’s Deputy Town Supervisor, Dan Lamb, said that his educated guess would put that rate closer to 90%.
Lamb, who had doubted that the maps would succeed initially, thinks New York has stuck the landing in creating a valuable resource.
“My expectation was that it would fail. I just thought it was too ambitious, and we’ve heard this sort of thing before from the government, but I am thoroughly impressed with what they’ve done,” said Lamb.
For the Tompkins County Legislature, the data is much more valuable. The county’s goals have been to fill in the gaps ISPs don’t reach, as opposed to the municipal wide approach taken by Dryden.
Nick Helmholdt, Tompkins County’s Principal Planner and Tourism Program Director, called the new ConnectALL maps “an important step forward.”
In January, the county delayed plans for a “driving survey” through all of Tompkins County in order to get an accurate picture of where the broadband gaps are. The ConnectAll maps will serve as a reference for the county’s future work, and Helmholdt said he is hoping to get a hold of the raw data sets that form the basis of the maps that the state compiled from ISPs.
“No map is perfect, and as soon as the map is published, it’s out of date,” said Helmholdt. “So, we will continue to work with our folks at the state to make sure that things are accurate there, as we find any discrepancies.”
Following through on validating ConnectAll’s maps will be important for local governments, since future state funding for broadband infrastructure will be directed by the level of need that the maps depict. On top of a $1 billion that was dedicated by Governor Kathy Hochul in her 2022 state of the state address to broadband initiatives across the state, New York will be getting a cut of $65 billion in federal funding to be divided up among the states to improve broadband access.
Leifer said that grant money is probably the only reason the ConnectALL maps will be especially relevant to the Town of Dryden going forward. Though the maps, in Lamb’s view, are a justification for what Dryden is pursuing.
“The maps are good, but they’re not perfect,” said Lamb. “And that kind of points to the need for more municipal involvement in broadband service. It kind of affirms what we’re doing and Dryden because unless you have somebody at the street level, who really knows the community, you’re not going to have services really available to everybody.”