Inside Gov. Kathy Hochul’s $1 billion plan to fix New York’s internet

Here is what to know about the plan and the ongoing $15-per-month case:

What is ConnectALL?

Gov. Hochul plans to fund ConnectALL through $300 million from the state budget, and at least $345 million in federal funding. The state also expects hundreds of millions more in federal dollars from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act approved by Congress last year to bring the total to $1B.

A central part of the effort relies on signing up New Yorkers for the federal Affordable Connectivity Plan, a new benefit created by the infrastructure bill. It offers $30 per month toward internet services for families with incomes below 200% of federal poverty guidelines or who qualify for federal assistance programs, such as Medicaid or SNAP.

The state’s role is to invest in marketing and outreach to get New Yorkers enrolled in the program. A pandemic-focused internet subsidy from the federal government in 2021 enrolled only about 600,000 New York households, which the state estimated is just 30% of qualified families. While many of those households who enrolled in that program will roll over into the new one, the state has pledged to reach more people this time around.

That pledge was praised by Valerie White, executive director of LISC NYC, a nonprofit that advocates for investment in underserved communities.

She noted that a main way to reach people during the pandemic is online, yet the people who would benefit most from the broadband program likely have limited or no internet access.

“You have to be on-the-ground, going door to door and with printed media,” White said.

Along with signing up New Yorkers for the federal plan, Hochul expects to harness federal infrastructure bill money—expected to land in the hundreds of millions—to offer grants to projects that build broadband infrastructure. That could include helping municipalities build neutral fiber networks, which boost competition by allowing multiple internet providers to tap into the network. The plan also calls for building broadband in all state affordable housing and for developing a detailed map showing internet options statewide.

Court fight for $15-per-month law

Missing in the governor’s toolkit is a new law that digital equity advocates had previously hailed as a breakthrough. The state’s Affordable Broadband Act, approved in April 2021, would have required internet service providers to offer a $15-per-month plan to low-income families, with similar criteria to the new federal benefit.

Telecom industry groups sued the same month the bill was approved, arguing that the state did not have the right to regulate broadband rates, and that the law could put smaller internet providers out of business.

U.S. Eastern District Court Judge Denis Hurley sided with the industry and blocked the law’s implementation in June.

Jason Gough, a spokesman for the governor, said in an email that the ConnectALL plan is “focused on ensuring all eligible households obtain the up to $30 per month discount now available from the federal government. When the state’s affordable broadband mandate was enacted, and later successfully challenged, no such federal program existed.”

The New York State Telecommunications Association—among the group’s who successfully challenged the $15-per-month law—offered support for the ConnectALL plan. President Craig Miller said in an email that its members are “looking forward to playing a pivotal role and be active partners with the (state) to achieve the goals of this critical public policy proposal.”

On appeal

Attorney General Letitia James, who is defending the state’s $15 broadband law against the telecom industry challenge, quickly appealed the judge’s decision. The case is under review in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.

In a brief filed with the court in November, James wrote that the “district court’s sweeping field-preemption ruling relied on the startling and unjustified proposition” that states can not regulate broadband providers because they offer interstate services.

That proposition has caught the attention of other states as well. A bipartisan mix of 22 attorneys general—including California, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Nebraska—last month filed an amicus brief in support of New York’s appeal.

The telecom groups who filed the lawsuit are scheduled to reply by next month, though the process will likely drag on longer than that.

Richard Berkley, executive director of the Albany-based New York’s Utility Project, said that, in the meantime, the state is wise to find ways to expand access to internet options. There are still large swaths of the state with only a single internet provider, and some that lack broadband entirely, he said.

“The affordability legislation passed in 2021 is vitally important,” he said, “but that on its own it does not just make broadband appear.”

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