Credit: Chris Chabot/Flickr

A New York State of Megabits

Will a half-billion dollar investment in internet infrastructure put NY in the national lead? Only if its leaders put muscle behind the dollars.

I’m a New Yorker who took a trip to Cuba recently to talk to people about Internet access there. The situation is grim: nineteen out of twenty Cubans have no access, and the five percent who do have it reach the Internet mostly through universities, and mostly at dial-up speeds. Private access by way of WiFi connections in Internet cafés or hotel lobbies is unthinkably expensive. An hour of WiFi can cost $4 or $7; an ordinary Cuban salary is about $20-$30 per month. There are some businesses with DSL or satellite access, but it’s both extraordinarily slow and hugely expensive — say $3,000 for a month’s DSL connection.

One young man, a film buff, told me that the Internet, for him, is like a ghost. It’s something he has heard about but never really experienced. The human cost of this lack of access — and its implications for education, healthcare, and employment, among many other parts of life in Cuba — is staggering.

I complain a lot about Internet access in the United States, so the trip was a reminder that things could be worse. But it’s not an excuse for our country to continue trailing other developed nations. Here’s a parallel for you: When it comes to high-capacity Internet access, Cuba is to the U.S. as the U.S. is to Norway, Korea, and a bunch of other places in northern Europe and Asia.

So it was great to get back to New York and be able to report on what is called the “New NY Broadband Program.” It involves a $500 million expenditure to help ensure that New Yorkers across the state have access to current-generation Internet capacity. There’s lots of potential in the plan, targeted at providing every New Yorker with access to 100 megabit per second (Mbps) service (10 Mbps uploads) by the end of 2018. Because New York expects a 1:1 match from the private sector for each grant or loan it makes, that means the state hopes to be deploying at least $1 billion on high-speed Internet access infrastructure.

It’s the largest high-speed Internet access commitment in the nation. It could be a game-changer.

On the other hand, if the plan is not nurtured by aggressive leadership and implemented with skill, it won’t change much at all in the State of New York, much less set the pace for the rest of the nation. Our top officials must find the courage to require competitive markets and make policy changes that open the way for new entrants. Otherwise the plan could end up allowing the existing players to dig in and hold on to their territories — leaving upstate New Yorkers not much better off than they are now, albeit with “access” to unreasonably priced higher-capacity connections.

The scale and ambition of the New NY Broadband Program are both impressive. In announcing the program, Gov. Cuomo’s office has said that providers will be asked to provide 100 Mbps download speeds, with funding priority given to those offering the highest speeds at the lowest prices. And the need is great: most of the state, including 70 percent of upstate New Yorkers, has little or no access to 100 Mbps speeds.

Just one percent of New Yorkers has a choice of providers for 100 Mbps service; 53 percent can’t buy this access at any price. New York State makes maps of provider areas available and plans to make even more fine-grained mapping data public and pursue improved state regulations for access to state rights of way as part of the New NY program.

Here’s how the plan is supposed to work. The state’s ten Regional Economic Development Councils, made up of local experienced experts and stakeholders (both public and private), will submit recommendations to the state in the form of strategic plans. Importantly, the Councils are supposed to work on aggregating demand — pulling together guaranteed customers for new access to infrastructure in the form of institutions and businesses as well as residences — when they identify their priority geographic areas. Then they must describe the most cost-effective means for getting access to everyone. From that point, it will be up to the state to decide which of the Councils’ plans get funded, and at what level.

So far, so good. In fact, terrific.

But the process can be tricky and there are potential potholes ahead. The press materials for the program talk about high speeds and low prices, and the state’s Broadband Program Office says its goal to have every New Yorker “have access to affordable broadband at speeds of 100 Mbps download/50 Mbps upload.”

But as things stand, “unserved” areas in New York State are defined to be places where there is no provider offering even 6 Mbps download and 1.5 Mbps upload — DSL-quality access, in other words — and the existing definition of “unserved” and “underserved” areas says nothing about price. Affordability is a major barrier in New York State, as it is across the country. (That’s why the FCC is launching a major reform of the nation’s Lifeline program. Just as we once subsidized phone service for low-income Americans, we now need to support high-speed Internet access — the 21st century equivalent of a telephone line.)

The Regional Councils, tasked with identifying unserved and underserved areas, may or may not be interested in pushing new entrants to build fast, cheap, open, world-class fiber networks over which competitors can provide service at competitive prices — the model followed by a wide range of cities around the world, from Rockport, Maine to Ammon, Idaho, to a long list of hamlets in rural Sweden.

Those are the future-proof networks all New Yorkers are going to need, and it would be too bad if they end up instead with higher-speed but second-rate (and expensive) cable or souped-up copper wire connections sold to them by the current operators. Right now, Time Warner Cable dominates the landscape with its more than two and a half million customers in New York State, and it has no particular incentive to cannibalize its own offering. (Verizon sells DSL copper-line access in New York State to about 1.5 million people — but DSL is not competitive with TWC’s lines.)

And that’s where the state — and its leadership team for this initiative — can make this program fulfill its promise. If the state can lower barriers to the rights-of-way and other state assets that make networks cost-effective (as Connecticut has), and hold the Councils’ feet to the fire until they come up with open fiber initiatives that will drive down the prices consumers and businesses pay, then the $500 million will have been well spent.

For a Cuban, U.S. Internet access is miraculous; for someone from South Korea or Seoul, coming here feels like a rural vacation because life is so disconnected and slow.

It’s time the Empire State raised our American expectations.

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Do you think that the NY State program will make a difference? What’s your own high-speed Internet situation? Feel free to share your thoughts below.