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Gillibrand proposes $7B investment to extend internet access program for low-income families

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (second from right), Assemblymember Demond Meeks (left), and Mayor Malik Evans (center) pose at Arnett Library after a press conference.
Noelle E. C. Evans
/
WXXI News
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (second from right), Assemblymember Demond Meeks (left), and Mayor Malik Evans (center) pose at Arnett Library after a press conference.

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is proposing legislation to extend a federal program that provides financial assistance for internet access.

The senator announced the Affordable Connectivity Program Extension Act on Friday at Arnett Library in Rochester.

The bill would provide $7 billion to a federal assistance program for low-income families around the country.

About 1.7 million households in New York state rely on the program, which is expected to run out of money in April.

“More people want it than there's money for,” Gillibrand said. “Research suggests that investing in people's ability to access the internet can create great economic opportunity and have lifelong impacts, especially for our nation's children.”

State Assemblymember Demond Meeks said this is a matter of meeting people’s basic needs.

“Without an extension, millions of New Yorkers stand at risk of losing access to high-speed internet, including essential access to work, school, and health care services,” Meeks said.

In Monroe County, roughly 76,000 low-income households rely on the Affordable Connectivity Program. The extended funding would likely last until the end of the year, Gillibrand said.

Rochester Mayor Malik Evans said internet access is a critical issue.

“We always hear these stories of people going to McDonald's parking lots, or other places where they're looking to get connected to the WiFi service because they don't have it,” Evans said. “If we are able to find ways to connect folks, we are not only just connecting them to the information superhighway, as we call it, we are connecting them to opportunity.”

Some of the poorest ZIP codes in the state are in Rochester, which means many city residents would qualify for the program.

Seanelle Hawkins, CEO of the Urban League of Rochester, said connectivity to the internet can transform communities facing socioeconomic challenges.

“I'm hoping that we all can work as a collective to build access and a more equitable society for all,” Hawkins said.

A more permanent solution, Gillibrand said, would be a systemic shift toward making internet access publicly funded.

“The best solution, ultimately, is to make internet a right, to make it a public investment for everyone across the country in the same way we electrify the nation,” she said. “The question is: Can you make access to high-speed internet, ultimately, a utility? And I think if states do it first, it'll help us create momentum for the federal government to do it, too.”

Gillibrand said it would be up to state lawmakers to make that a reality for New Yorkers.

Noelle E. C. Evans is WXXI's Murrow Award-winning Education reporter/producer.