Syracuse, New York

On August 3, 2020, community leaders from across the Next Century Cities network shared local connectivity stories in a virtual hearing before the Commission tasked with reimagining broadband connectivity in New York. Established by Governor Andrew Cuomo in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent recovery, the “Reimagine Commission” will work to address connectivity challenges faced by residents across the state. The last five months have revealed the pressing need for every household, in New York and nationwide, to have access to fast, affordable, and reliable broadband. 

During the meeting, municipal leaders spoke directly to commissioners and highlighted the continued connectivity barriers they face while battling COVID-19. Dr. dt oglvie, Senior Advisor to Mayor Lovely Warren, shared community challenges from Rochester similar to those that Jennifer Tifft, Deputy Commissioner, Dept. of Neighborhood and Business Development, highlighted in Syracuse. Community leaders Yamil Lora and Stuart Reid spoke on behalf of New York City residents, in the Bronx and housing developments respectively, that continue to struggle with connectivity. Joanne Schindeliheim, a resident of Durham, and Mayor Mark Evans from Coxsackie detailed unique deployment issues in sparsely populated areas. 

One challenge facing almost every community in the country is the future of education and distance learning. In one large municipality, a leader shared the district’s goal of providing every student with a personal computer to stay connected during distance learning. This municipality must overcome two major challenges: finding the funding to purchase computers and implementing programs to support digital literacy training. 

Since March 2020, local leaders have been working overtime to connect their communities while protecting the continuity of distance learning and helping business leaders transition to a digital market. In New York City, for example, Mr. Reid highlighted work to connect residents and provide an outlet to share positive stories. He explained that while stories coming out of public housing communities are often negative, his organization’s work to connect this community allows a wider variety of narratives to form around these tight-knit neighborhoods. Notably, connectivity enabled residents to utilize podcasts, radio shows, and other multimedia tools to share their stories, wisdom, and COVID-19 warnings with largely disconnected residents at the original peak of the pandemic. He suggested that, in our “new normal” of social distancing and limited in-person interactions, the Commission should support any project that works to bring New Yorkers closer together. 

As the country continues to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and searches for ways to fill-in connectivity gaps, the Commission must turn to local leaders. State and federal officials have expertise in funding programs and are able to issue guidance, but local leaders are on the ground bringing their people together each and every day. Specifically, in New York, local leaders have long recognized the digital divide within and between their communities, and action is long overdue. 

Next Century Cities submitted a memo of recommendations for the Commission on July 31, 2020, and hopes to be a thought partner in expanding connectivity in New York.