A Broadband State of Mind

How New York Set Out to Bring Access to All by 2018

By Laura Withers

When announcing the availability of $500 million in public funding for broadband deployment in his state, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo looked to the past to put the unprecedented investment into perspective.

“This is infrastructure for today,” he said. “It is Eisenhower’s highway road system of the ’50s. It’s what Gov. Smith, what DeWitt Clinton did with the Erie Canal. Broadband is that basic a requirement.”

His words would carry to the halls of Congress and federal agencies more than 300 miles south of Albany, where a national dialogue about broadband rivaling roads, bridges and airports as 21st century infrastructure would soon catch fire. The foresight of Cuomo and his staff in crafting the country’s most aggressive state government effort to close a connectivity gap between urban and rural communities would also earn the praise of the FCC chairman and the envy of countless state legislators facing similar vexing rural broadband challenges.

On the day of the announcement in August 2016, however, those outcomes were far from sight. What was clear was that this action would succeed or fail on the participation of large and small telecommunications providers serving disparate pockets of the state. The success of the program, which is now awarding its third phase of projects, was achieved largely on the eagerness of independent telecom providers to serve greater numbers of rural New Yorkers by edging out their networks, signaling that with a deep commitment, strong track record of service and public support to offset the extraordinary costs, even the industry’s smallest players can bring broadband to the masses.

‘Game Changer’

Cuomo’s “Broadband for All” initiative made waves for two reasons. First, it brought half a billion dollars for broadband deployment and second, it required that projects be completed faster than any state program before it, leading Cuomo to call it a “game changer.” The program’s first phase awarded $54 million to incumbent telecom providers through a reverse auction, followed by $212 million in the second phase, which the state estimates will bring broadband to 82,000 homes and 7,000 businesses in unserved and underserved census blocks by 2018. New York also petitioned the FCC to allocate $170 million in unclaimed Connect America Fund dollars to its statewide broadband efforts. The commission granted the request in January.

Among a bevy of project requirements is the ability to serve a minimum of 100 Mbps download speeds, or a minimum of 25 Mbps in the most remote areas, and to complete all major fiber routes by the end of 2018. Bidding companies also had to show they currently serve at least 500 internet subscribers and had to pay a $100,000 application fee, which is reimbursed if the bid is successful.