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Exclusive: State broadband office discusses 98% claim, Southern Tier project, and more

After a year of asking for an interview, the state broadband office finally agreed to sit down with 2 On Your Side.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — The New York State Broadband Program Office oversees Gov. Andrew Cuomo's ambitious $500-million-plus broadband project. It's an office within the Empire State Development office. 

There have been several directors and vice presidents since its inception, the current being Scott Rasmussen, Assistant Vice President of the state broadband office, and he's held that position since September 2019.

Rasmussen has had his finger on the pulse of broadband-related issues for several years, primarily in the New York City area. 

Since our initial story in 2020 about the NYS Broadband Program, 2 On Your Side has been asking for an interview with anyone from the office to discuss a variety of topics. 

Most of our comments were ignored, or statements would be sent to us if we included a question in our request. 

In early 2021, the office agreed to make Rasmussen available for an interview via zoom 

There are three main topics we discussed for this initial story:

  • How does the state calculate its 98% high-speed coverage claim?
  • Why isn't the Armstrong Communications project in the Southern Tier complete?
  • Why wasn't Erie County prioritized as Governor Cuomo promised? 

Starting with the big claim about the percentage of coverage in the state. The governor and Lt. Governor Kathy Hochul have said this often.

"98% of the state now has access to high-speed broadband," Cuomo said at an April 16, 2021 event in Buffalo. 

"Approximately 98% of New York homes," Cuomo said at his 2021 State of the State address.

"98% of the state now has high-speed broadband," Lt. Governor Kathy Hochul said in July 2020. 

"Every corner of upstate," Cuomo said at his 2020 State of the State address.

"We got to 98%," Cuomo said at a broadband-related event in August 2018. 

2 On Your Side has been asking several industry leaders in New York, and across the country about this claim.

"We have a problem, our numbers overestimate who was covered.," Former FCC Commissioner Michael O'Rielly said. "If you add on top of that, the New York program and it's very difficult to address, so when people say oh 99% are covered I don't think that that's probably In the cards."

David Little leads the NYS Rural Schools Association and has seen first-hand how the pandemic has impacted remote education in rural areas. 

"He's basing that 98% figure on some fairly well-known erroneous information," Little said. "Providers of broadband access have claimed in what they call coverage zones that if anybody is covered in the coverage zone, (then) that zone has 100% coverage."

The Electronic Freedom Foundation monitors a variety of digital rights issues, particularly broadband mapping. 

"FCC data is polluted by the self-interest by companies who wanted people to think more things are covered but not as a means to keep the government out of the game of building the infrastructure themselves,” said Ernesto Falcon, Senior Legal Counsel for the EFF.

Microsoft has been analyzing data of its users and whether they are using the internet at the FCC-defined broadband speed of 25Mbps. Their data paints a drastically different picture than the Governor. 

"if you think about New York overall, the number according to the FCC is that it's basically universal access, I think the number is 225,000 don’t have access, where our data says it's 9 million," said Vickie Robinson, with Microsoft's Airband Initiative. "So there's clearly a disconnect there."

2 On Your Side asked Rasmussen about how the state calculates its 98% claim:

"We use a combination of data sources. We use the FCC data, we try to challenge that wherever possible, we use private provider data so that we're supplementing it, we use our own data that we've generated through our program. And then just to take a step back and think about it with respect to context, right, there are over 8 million locations across the state of New York, that are available for broadband service. So when we're talking about 98 to 99%, you're still talking about, you know, a serious population that remains unserved, you know, in some cases, and maybe 80%"

2 On Your Side has submitted multiple Freedom of Information requests to a variety of agencies to obtain that data the state uses to make this claim. 

When you look at the amount of money set aside for the state projects, three Western New York counties fared quite well: Allegany, Cattaraugus and Chautauqua counties had a total of $114,921,565 in projects announced by the state. Wyoming County was in the middle of the pack with $2,895,245 in projects announced. 

Erie, Genesee, Niagara, and Orleans counties, however, didn't fare well. Only a total of $1,712,362 worth of investment was announced for projects in those counties. 

Over $80 million in awards was announced for Armstrong Communications to deploy fiber across the southern tier and Finger Lakes.

"We get it done by 2018," Governor Cuomo said in August 2016 during a press conference about broadband.

The project remains incomplete.  

Right now, Armstrong is putting in 40 plus miles of fiber per week. So these projects are after lots and lots of setbacks, as we discussed in terms of improving the infrastructure, so the poles and everything is in place to be able to put out the fiber. We’re finally in this stage where we’re starting to just throw it onto telephone poles everywhere that we can."

"So 2021? 2022? What can the residents down there expect?" 2 On Your Side asked. 

"It depends on where you live," Rasmussen replied. 

During a 2016 press conference announcing the program, Governor Cuomo made a big promise to Erie County:

"Erie County has been prioritized for the first year. So it's gonna there's going to be a big burst of energy and activity over this first year, which will get many homes done and then primarily next year, about 85% will be done and then 2018 the remainder. So it's going to happen”

It didn’t, and 2 On Your Side asked why.

"We’d have to follow up with you on that," Rasmussen said. "I don’t want to take the step of speaking for the Governor or trying to offer statements on his behalf about what promises were made.

Which is fair, in defense of Rasmussen, he didn't take over the broadband office until 2019, a year after the program was supposed to be completed. 

Wrapping things up with Rasmussen, 2 On Your Side asked him what the lasting legacy of the program would be. 

"New York made an incredibly bold and aggressive investment in rural broadband in our state and I think it’s something that everyone in our state should be incredibly proud of," Rasmussen said. 

Currently, the state comptroller’s office is conducting an audit of the New York State broadband program and the results of that audit and investigation should be released soon.