As New York charts a path forward from the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic, a recent analysis of census data conducted by Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts, estimates the state saw its rural population shrink by 4.7% from 2010 to 2020, among the steepest declines in the nation.

Faced with fewer residents and an increased workforce shortage, rural communities have embraced online education and telecommuting to remain economically viable. However, despite the widespread adoption of virtual classrooms and online workspaces, access to affordable broadband continues to loom as a critical concern for many residents hoping to adapt to new opportunities while also working to preserve their quality of life.

Earlier this month, Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli issued a report that laid bare the broadband gap in rural New York. Allegany and Cattaraugus counties, with 82% and 63% of their respective population living in rural areas, are among the hardest hit. In Allegany County, 23.4% of the population lacks available broadband, meaning their geographic areas are not wired for broadband connectivity. In Cattaraugus, that number is 17.9% — second worst in the state.

As for broadband access — defined in the report as the percentage of households with a subscription for broadband internet, including cellular service — Cattaraugus County residents were the least connected in the state. Allegany County wasn’t far behind. The number of service providers is a chief concern; the vast majority of rural New Yorkers have only one internet service provider in their area. Some have zero.

The timing of the report’s release comes amid a watershed era for broadband connectivity, which provides virtual K-12 education, an environment in which rural students thrive in hybrid college prep courses. Broadband is also central to remote work that enables New Yorkers to remain employed and productive as the Delta variant persists.

Experts have identified access to high-speed, broadband internet, internet-enabled devices, access to digital literacy training, technical support, and online content designed to encourage self-sufficiency as the most effective ways to expand workforce talent pools. An in-demand workforce is made up of individuals who have the relevant, modern tools to reach their full potential, because they have the resources, education and training they need to leverage their talents into opportunity. Likewise, that knowledgeable workforce is valuable to employers because they hold the in-demand skills and knowledge needed to remain competitive.

According to the comptroller’s report, 26.7% of New Yorkers with less than a high school education lack access to broadband. That’s compared to only 4.9% of residents with a bachelor’s degree or higher. All the state’s residents deserve an equitable path to opportunity, which, for some, comes in the form of online education. A persistent gap in broadband access eliminates those opportunities.

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In other words, internet service is not a luxury simply used to stream movies at home or provide entertainment. It is a vital community resource that people use for education, employment, access to telemedicine, and other essential activities for quality of life.

New York has made commendable strides in recent years and has attempted to address broadband affordability through legislative means. At the federal level the bipartisan infrastructure framework making its way through Congress could infuse millions of dollars into that effort. In his report, the comptroller called for the state to develop a detailed strategy to address broadband access in part through those federal funds.

Part of that strategy should focus on alliances with local businesses to support their human resource objectives and expand access to higher education for their current employees. Broadband expansion can have a direct and powerful impact on rural New York businesses when they also extend to higher education and provide pathways for residents to pursue the skills and qualifications employers trust.

Improving access to broadband internet for New York’s rural communities is a key factor in preparing residents for in-demand careers. We cannot afford to let a lack of broadband infrastructure reduce economic opportunity and turn New York into a landscape comprised of have and have-not communities.

New York must commit its full attention to closing the digital divide by focusing on infrastructure and working with providers and local businesses on a statewide plan that will make affordable, high-speed broadband available to every resident. This is critical work that will impact the state’s rural communities — their businesses, their local economies, and, most importantly, their people.

(Rebecca L. Watts serves as a regional vice president for Western Governors University, a nonprofit, accredited university focused on competency-based learning that serves nearly 3,000 students and 5,000 alumni in New York state.)

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