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Looming Fight For Broadband Internet Access

A political fight is shaping up over, of all things, internet access in homeless shelters statewide.

Earlier this week, state Sen. Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, D-Bronx, recently introduced S.9030 to amend the state Social Services Law to require any homeless shelter overseen by the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance provide internet access.

Biaggi’s legislation is driven by a study released earlier this year by the City Bar Justice Center which found New York City shelters do not currently provide adequate access to the internet; most shelter residents are not able to otherwise regularly access the internet on their own, and when they do, it requires them to pay for their own cellular plans; and improved access to the Internet would enable shelter residents to improve their living conditions and return to self-sufficiency.

“Most were either unable to access the internet regularly or had to spend their limited resources on phone plans with data. For residents looking for a job, housing, or trying to access city resources, being unable to access the internet is costly.

Residents reported that they lost out on jobs or had to use limited funds to pay for internet access instead of food or other essential items,” Biaggi wrote in her legislative justification. “For the estimated 114,000 children who live in shelters in New York City, being unable to access the internet has made remote learning inaccessible. There are countless accounts of students who received laptops from the New York City Department of Education but had no access to wifi. In some cases, students received wifi enabled devices, but still could not access the internet for school because of spotty cell reception in their shelter.”

In addition to Biaggi, the New York City Bar Association is pushing Mayor Bill de Blasio to provide and prioritize internet access for homeless shelters. The Mayor’s Office has announced a city-wide plan to increase the availability of broadband internet access and indicated NYC Housing Authority facilities will be prioritized to help those most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, that plan does not mention homeless shelters.

“The problem of no or limited Internet access in shelters has been front and center during the COVID crisis as the Department of Education has had to scramble over weeks to obtain and provide Internet enabled devices to homeless children so they could engage in remote learning with their peers,” said Lisa Pearlstein, Director of the Legal Clinic for the Homeless Project. “These children should have had Internet access all along, so they could complete their school assignments as easily as their more fortunate peers. Their parents should not have to pay from their limited Cash Assistance or earnings for Internet hot spots or cellular plans to enable them to look for jobs or apartments that would enable the family to exit shelter.”

Several Republicans, including state Sen. George Borrello, R-Sunset Bay, have countered by demanding Democrats take action to provide greater internet access to rural students without broadband access throughout the state.

“Democrats have ignored our calls over and over again to repeal their broadband tax that’s stopped the expansion of broadband into rural areas. While it’s laudable that they now want to deliver WiFi to homeless students in New York City, Democrats need to understand that students in low-income rural areas are falling behind without this critical tool during a pandemic that’s forced them to learn remotely or in hybrid models. Rural broadband access and the repeal of the Democrat tax must be prioritized so that Upstate students are not left behind,” said Rob Ortt, R-Lockport and Senate minority leader.

In July, Borrello and Sen. Pam Helming introduced legislation to repeal the broadband tax and access as promised by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2015 with the New NY Broadband Program and its promise of broadband for all. The state established a $500 million public-private partnership to expand high-speed internet in underserved areas. Broadband internet availability did increase in the wake of the New NY Broadband Program, though a recent report from the Federal Communications Commission shows the availability is not equal. The report states 98.4% of New York residents have access to broadband — but that number is driven by a 99.9% of urban residents having broadband access. Broadband access decreases to 87% in rural areas.

“We must bridge the digital divide for all students, not just some. It shouldn’t matter if you are a homeless student in New York City learning remotely or a student upstate whose family desperately needs broadband. We cannot leave our children behind at this critical time. Unfortunately, Senate Democrats have turned their backs on rural students by implementing a tax on broadband and severely hindering expansion in rural areas,” Borrello said.

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