Cuomo offers 2021 ‘connectivity agenda’ to close digital divide; require $15 per month high-speed internet service for low-income families; establish a hardship fund for families most in need
Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday announced his proposal to enact a first-in-the-nation requirement for affordable internet for all low-income families as part of the 2021 State of the State agenda. Under the governor's proposal, all internet providers would be required to offer affordable service at $15 per month to low-income households. The affordability requirements are part of Cuomo’s 2021 “connectivity agenda,” which also includes a series of actions to protect consumers through better disclosures, promote broadband build-out and market competition, and undertake new digital inclusion efforts.
"Now more than ever, high-speed internet has become essential in every household. You can't go to school, work from home, or visit your doctor by telehealth without it," Cuomo said. "New York has led the way in building out broadband infrastructure, and now we must ensure that internet service is affordable to give every family and community the connectivity tools they need to succeed."
The governor's Reimagine New York Commission reported equal access to high-quality, affordable internet connectivity is a prerequisite to building back a better and more equitable New York. Informed by their recommendations, Cuomo will take the following actions.
√ Establish First-in-the-Nation Guarantee of Affordable Internet Mandate: Cuomo will propose first-in-the-nation legislation requiring internet service providers to offer an affordable, $15 per month high-speed internet plan to low-income households. Currently, a basic high-speed internet plan costs, on average, more than $50 a month. The state will also require providers to advertise this option to ensure programs reach underserved populations.
√ Close the "Homework Gap" by Establishing a Hardship Fund: To bridge the gap during the COVID-19 emergency and help the most in need children across New York, the governor's so-called “blue-ribbon” Reimagine New York Commission, Schmidt Futures and the Ford Foundation will launch a new hardship fund to pay for internet subscriptions for students who cannot afford $15 a month during the COVID-19 crisis. To ensure students also get the laptops and hot spots they need, the state will expedite Smart Schools Bond Act funding to school districts to meet outstanding device needs.
√ Consumer Protections for Broadband Customers and Other Critical Reforms: To combat practices that limit consumer choice and increase the cost of internet services, the Public Service Commission will require adherence to a universal "broadband disclosure" that explains all charges, such as device, termination, activation, and equipment fees in plain and easy-to-understand language so consumers will no longer get hit with unexpected charges.
In addition, the state will undertake other actions to spur further investment in access including promoting a "dig once" policy to facilitate the buildout of fiber across the state, launching a website to help New Yorkers find the affordable plan in their area and report on coverage gaps and consumer experiences, as well as other efforts to close the literacy and digital skills gap that persists in underserved communities.
Reimagine New York Commission Chair and Schmidt Futures Co-Founder Eric Schmidt said, "The challenges we have faced this year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic have made it abundantly clear that, in order to move forward, affordable internet access must be accessible for all New Yorkers. This is why the Reimagine New York Commission made achieving universal internet connectivity our first and most important goal. But simply having the internet available in your area is not enough. The proposals that Gov. Cuomo announced today are critical steps to address the affordability, competition and digital literacy issues standing in the way of universal and equitable access for all New Yorkers."
Richard Parson, chair of the Rockefeller Foundation and co-chair of the Reimagine New York Commission's connectivity working group, said, "Gov. Cuomo's broadband program enacted in 2015 represented a best-in-nation approach to addressing fixed broadband coverage for rural New Yorkers. Yet, over 2 million New York households remain without a fixed broadband subscription at home. We must now build upon the foundation of New York's broadband program to address remaining barriers in coverage, affordability, and digital inclusion. A multipronged approach is key to addressing these remaining challenges for underserved communities across New York state."
Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation and co-chair of the Reimagine New York Commission's connectivity working group, said, "Internet access is a human right, yet historically marginalized communities are still denied affordable broadband. New York must continue to strive for digital equity and universal internet connectivity, so that all New Yorkers have the internet access and skills they need to fully participate in all aspects of society. Through the Ford Foundation's work addressing digital equity and the digital divide, we have seen that it is essential for both government and internet service providers to do their part to address this critical need. New York can shine a light on what could be possible if we had a robust, diverse, competitive market to deliver affordable, fast broadband to every single home and business. This is a first and crucial step in building back a better and more just New York."
The governor's 2021 connectivity agenda builds on his work in delivering equitable internet access for all New Yorkers. In 2015, the state undertook the largest and most ambitious broadband initiative in the nation, dedicating $500 million to broaden internet access statewide. This investment, coupled with regulatory reforms, expanded the reach of broadband so today 98% of New York households have access to high-speed broadband with download speeds of at least 100 Mbps. Furthermore, the governor took steps to tackle the digital divide by signing the 2014 Smart Schools Bond Act, which made $2 billion available to school districts for technology devices and classroom enhancements to improve school connectivity.
Pathways Pledge for New York State Employers
Cuomo and the Reimagine New York Commission announced a proposal to create a “Pathways Pledge” for New York state employers to create more inclusive workforces and provide more workforce development opportunities. The pledge commits both public and private-sector employers to reforming their talent recruitment, investment and promotion policies to foster more equitable workforces after the COVID-19 pandemic.
"COVID-19 has exacerbated existing inequalities across our society, and the economy is no exception. Historic numbers of New Yorkers are out of work, and lower- and middle-income households are being hit the hardest. Public and private employers have critical roles to play closing that gap," Cuomo said. "We need to expand who they employ, invest in training and retraining, and work with workforce development partners to get jobs to the jobless. That's why we are asking employers across the state to take the ‘Pathways Pledge’ to help provide opportunity to all New Yorkers, not just those who are already well off."
To date, 16 companies have made the pledge, affecting over 120,000 workers in New York, and the state aims to triple those commitments in the next year. The pledge builds on Cuomo's progress advancing workforce development in New York, including the $175 million Workforce Development Initiative, the first governor's office of workforce development, and ensuring a majority of New York civil service positions hire based on skills, not degrees.
Participating employers will agree to report quarterly on their progress in implementing their pledge commitments. They will agree to take actions including:
√ Invest in current worker retraining or skills development for promotions and/or higher wages, including providing college financial support or supporting new skills training on the job;
√ Create new apprenticeship programs to provide pathways for underrepresented populations;
√ Commit to exploring additional workforce supports for low-income workers or trainees, e.g., childcare and transportation subsidies;
√ Commit to exploring skills-based hiring models by removing, as appropriate, high school or post-secondary degree requirements for new hires;
√ Scale relationships with existing nontraditional workforce development partners by providing funding and/or expanded staff volunteer time to facilitate recruiting, interviews and mentorship opportunities for new prospective employees; and/or
√ Develop new relationships with New York workforce development providers serving underserved communities, including State University of New York, City University of New York, Boards of Cooperative Educational Services, and/or nontraditional workforce development organizations.
The 16 founding employers participating in the pledge are IBM, Chobani, Con Edison, Google, JPMorgan Chase, Mastercard, AIG, Memorial Sloan Kettering, Montefiore, Globalfoundries, TEKsystems, Loretto, Cognizant, Clarkson University, Berkeley College and Athenex.
In addition to new commitments from New York's leading employers, Cuomo will also take the following state actions through his $175 million Workforce Development Initiative, inspired by the work of the Reimagine New York Commission. The following actions will seek to expand job pathways and opportunities:
√ Launch NYS workforce scholarships to allow low-income New Yorkers to attend high-quality training programs free-of-cost to gain skills leading to well-paid jobs. This initiative builds on Cuomo's leadership to make college free for middle-class New York families by creating non-college pathways to help New Yorkers move up the ladder.
√ Expand SUNY For All free online training so New Yorkers can enroll in additional employment certification programs for quality jobs in high-demand areas such as IT, cyber and health care, building on the success of hybrid learning models.
√ Expand the employment training incentive program retraining tax credit to further incentivize New York businesses to train and upskill employees and interns. This tax incentive will support training and wraparound services to help employees who are furloughed or out-of-work due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This will also provide internship opportunities to young New Yorkers.
Reimagine New York Commission Working Group Co-Chair and Former IBM Chair, President and CEO Ginni Rometty said, "Jump-starting New York's economic recovery depends on creating new career opportunities for those hit hardest by the pandemic, especially New Yorkers without a college degree. That's why I'm encouraging all New York companies to adopt the ‘Pathways Pledge,’ which commits employers to hire people based on their skills, not just their degrees. The pledge also calls for retraining programs to help workers build the skills that matter most in a fast-changing digital economy. Committing to the ‘Pathways Pledge’ is a way for companies to expand opportunity, make the workforce more inclusive, and put skills first in rebuilding New York's economy."
Reimagine New York Commission member and founder and CEO of Chobani Hamdi Ulukaya said, "As a founding member of the ‘Pathways Pledge,’ Chobani has been creating opportunities for all New Yorkers no matter where they come from or their experience. The promises we're making today formalize an important mission – not just for this state, but for the country. We must continue to do everything we can to break down the barriers to achieving the American Dream."
The Historic Riviera Theatre in North Tonawanda. (File photo)
More State of the State
The governor has announced proposals to “win the war against COVID-19,” by addressing New York's short-term economic issues, and ensure social and racial justice. Proposals focused on making New York a leader in the growing green energy economy and rebuilding and strengthening New York's infrastructure will be announced in the coming days.
"History has taught us that positive growth occurs not from fighting or even winning the war. Warfare only stops the evil. What must follow post war is the reconstruction: that is where growth occurs." Cuomo said. "New York told the world from day one, the choice was never between public health or economic activity. It was never either/or - it was always both. We're laying out a comprehensive, multifaceted plan for New York's future, first by controlling the spread of COVID while ramping up our vaccination plan. At the same time, we must stabilize the state's finances and invest in a new New York infrastructure that will stimulate our economy and put people back to work while creating jobs of the future with the largest green energy plan in the country."
‘Reimagine | Rebuild | Renew’ Highlights
•Safely Bringing Back the Arts with Pop-Up Performances and Events: New York is the cultural capital of the world. Cuomo’s team said, “Our unique cultural assets – Broadway, museums, film, comedy, dance and music – are fundamental to both the economy and the spirit of New York. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the $120 billion arts and cultural sector accounted for nearly 8% of the state's economy, and nearly 500,000 jobs. In less than a year, over 2 million jobs in the creative arts were lost nationally, including tens of thousands of jobs in New York.”
New York will launch a public-private partnership that will organize "pop-up" performances and arts events across the state beginning in February. More than 150 world-class artists, including Amy Schumer, Chris Rock, Renée Fleming, Wynton Marsalis and Hugh Jackman, will participate, along with arts organizations such as the Ballet Hispanico, Ars Nova, the Albany Symphony Orchestra, the National Black Theatre, Pendragon Theatre in Saranac Lake, and many others supported by New York State Council on the Arts, which works with over 2,000 arts organizations across the state.
Supporting New York artists, the state will partner with The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to launch a “Creatives Rebuild” initiative. Developed in partnership with the Reimagine New York Commission, this initiative will put back to work 1,000 artists who have been impacted by the crisis and will invest in dozens of small arts organizations that “make our towns and cities so dynamic. Arts have a multiplying effect on the economy. Creatives Rebuild will provide New York artists support so they can help build more vibrant communities across New York.”
•Partner with New York Businesses to Invest in Workforce Training, Expand Apprenticeships and Mentorships, and Reform Recruitment and Promotion Policies: The COVID-19 health emergency has pushed many New Yorkers out of work, with the greatest losses impacting lower- and middle-income households. Cuomo’s team said, “Equally important is the demand side of the workforce equation: Businesses must help design programs to meet skill gaps and commit to hiring workers once training is complete.”
•Provide Scholarships to Low-Income Workers for Workforce Training Programs: While many New York community colleges, nonprofits or business training providers offer workforce training, workers who do not qualify for current college subsidies must pay the full cost. Cuomo’s team said, “This can be a barrier to entry into the training opportunities needed to achieve higher wages and break into growing industries.”
As New York builds back better, Cuomo is announcing nearly $5 million in scholarships to create more opportunities for low-income, working New Yorkers to enter the middle class. Like the Excelsior Scholarship which launched in 2017, this program will make high-quality credential programs free for low-income New Yorkers, empowering them to earn credentials that will lead to middle-class jobs in high-demand industries.
•Expand SUNY's Online Training Center to Close Skills Gaps and Fill High-Demand Jobs: The COVID-19 public health crisis particularly hit hard the leisure and hospitality, trade and logistics, and retail industries, now all facing unprecedented revenue losses. Cuomo’s team said, “As workers seek new job opportunities, non-degree certification credential programs can be an important way to close skills gaps and fill high-demand jobs.”
Cuomo will expand SUNY's free Online Training Center so New Yorkers can enroll in additional employment certification programs for quality jobs in high-demand growing industries, like health care and advanced manufacturing. The Training Center will give more New Yorkers in every region of the state – from rural communities to urban centers – another opportunity to receive free job training certifications and then automatically be admitted to any one of SUNY's 30 community colleges for future career advancements.
•Convene a Commission on the Future of New York's Economy: Cuomo will establish the Commission on the Future of New York's Economy to put forth a roadmap to address “the underlying inequities exposed by the COVID-19 crisis” – “including the socioeconomic disparities that the crisis exacerbated” – and get New York back to work in jobs that pay well and continue to attract people from around the world to live and work in New York. The commission will be composed of leading members of the nation's academic, business, labor and civil society leaders. NYU Wagner School of Public Service Dean Sherry Glied will serve as executive director of this commission.
•Create a Rapid Testing Network as a Tool to Help Businesses Reopen: Over the past several months, Cuomo's “New York Forward” reopening plan has, his team said, “paved the way for many businesses to resume operations safely through a phased approach and in accordance with public health protocols. While this has unleashed the ingenuity and creativity of New York businesses – such as new outdoor dining spaces and delivery options – it has also created significant financial struggles for these industries.”
New York has been at the forefront of developing testing capacity throughout the COVID-19 crisis and will use that experience to help support the reopening of businesses. The state will continue to scale up the availability of testing to help businesses safely reduce capacity restrictions, as well as work with testing companies to stand up a network of convenient testing sites in city centers, starting with New York City. New York will also work with local governments to cut through any red tape to set up this critical infrastructure quickly. With this new network of rapid testing locations, a customer will be able to stop into a new rapid testing facility, get tested, and 15 minutes later be cleared for dinner or a movie. This will provide an added layer of protection and confidence as New Yorkers resume economic activity.
In addition, to help employers bring more workers back to their offices, New York is partnering with leading commercial real estate firms in New York City in which they pledge to make market-rate diagnostic COVID-19 testing available to tenants in their buildings. Major commercial operators with over 100 million square feet of commercial space in New York City have already committed to this pledge. The Department of Health will also issue best practice guidelines for office testing to support the initiative.
•Creatively Repurposing Underutilized Commercial Space for Additional Housing: As the COVID-19 pandemic has unfolded, New York, like states across the country, has seen an increase in telework and a reduction in travel. Cuomo’s team said, “New York City must, and will, remain a global commercial hub by ensuring that the city remains the paramount location for the world's most innovative and successful businesses and their employees. Reduced demand for office and hotel space has created an opportunity to repurpose formerly commercial space that has far greater potential for use as housing, including affordable and supportive housing, to create dynamic, 24/7 walk-to-work neighborhoods.”
Cuomo will propose legislation to create a five-year period during which property owners may convert office buildings and hotels in New York City to residential use. Cuomo’s team said, “Stimulating housing conversion will create thousands of good-paying jobs, increase housing affordability, and support long-term economic growth by helping New York's employers attract and retain talent.”
"There was light when New Yorkers came together and defended the state from the COVID ambush and brought the state from the highest infection rate to one of the lowest. And this light illuminates a new path of possibility for our state. A path that says we can care about each other and help each other and recognize our interconnections and relationships – that we are one community and one family,” Cuomo said. “That our differences are second to our commonality. That we are strong and competent and capable. That we can build, we can achieve, we can take on great challenges and we can triumph. That we believe in ourselves and we believe in each other and we believe in this place called New York. This place of possibility, this place of welcome, this place of mutuality, this place of acceptance and cooperation."