ALBANY — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Tuesday proposed mandating companies to charge no more than $15 per month for broadband internet service for low-income New Yorkers, saying access and affordability is a high-priority in the COVID-19 economy.
Cuomo, a Democrat, offered the proposal as part of what he’s calling a weeklong rollout of his wish list for the 2021 session of the State Legislature.
Other proposals unveiled Tuesday include a series of "pop up" performance arts venues and festivals to revive music and theater in the state, expansion of rapid virus test sites to more quickly allow customers back to restaurants and theaters, and incentives to convert office space to affordable housing. As is typical with governors' wish lists, legislators say they want to see more specific details — a step that will probably happened when the governor unveils his proposed state budget later this month.
Cuomo said broadband internet service is available to 98% of New York residents. But too many can’t afford it and are being "left behind" as businesses and schools shift more activities online because of the pandemic.
"Access without affordability is meaningless," Cuomo said in a speech at the State Capitol. "Without broadband, telemedicine is not an option. Without broadband, you can't apply for most jobs. Without broadband, the public education system that was supposed to be the great equalizer becomes the great divider. In this new world, remote learning doesn't exist if the child doesn't have access. And too often the child left behind in remote learning is poor, Black or Latino."
Also, the state will establish a fund, through the help of the Ford Foundation and others, to pay the $15 for families that can't afford it, Cuomo said. A basic broadband connection plan often can cost more than $50 per month, he added.
It wasn't immediately clear how the governor would define low-income for purposes of the initiative or what kind of connection speed would be mandated.
Among his other initiatives, the Democrat proposed offering tax incentives for building owners, now stuck with empty offices because of the pandemic, to convert units to affordable housing.
"These underutilized spaces also present an opportunity, especially in cities where housing has become too unaffordable for too many, especially with the growing homeless problem which is a crisis in many of our cities," the governor said. "These commercial spaces can be adapted for other uses that benefit the community and make them commercially viable. Why not convert unneeded commercial space into affordable and supportive housing?"
The governor didn't provide further details, other than to say owners would have a five-year window to do conversions.
The governor also proposed to build "hundreds" of "pop up" virus rapid testing which he said could be used to help open office buildings or, say, restaurants.
"Major commercial operators with over 100 million square feet of space have already agreed to offer testing services to all tenants in their buildings on a regular scheduled basis," Cuomo said. "We are working with more operators as we speak. Office buildings are the engines of our economy. Bringing workers back safely will boost ridership on our mass transit, bring customers back to restaurants and stores and return life to our streets."
The legislative session began last week and runs through June 10. The key date is April 1, the deadline for Cuomo and legislators to adopt a state budget.