Nearly two years have passed since the state’s Upstate Cellular Coverage Task Force met to improve lacking cell phone service in rural and sparsely populated communities, but officials cast doubt Thursday the group will reconvene.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo created the Cellular Task Force, administered by Empire State Development, in September 2019. The group includes industry experts, community leaders, bipartisan lawmakers, environmental representatives and other stakeholders.
The group first met Sept. 10, 2019, followed by a handful of meetings that fall. A group of upstate legislators requested an update Thursday in a letter to Cuomo and the department.
“In late March, we wrote to you requesting an update on the work and progress made by the Upstate Cellular Coverage Task Force ... It appears the task force has yet to report on its work, nor did we receive a response from your office to our inquiry of now more than three months ago,” according to the letter signed by Sen. Daniel Stec, R-Queensbury, and Assembly members Matthew Simpson, R-Horicon; D. Billy Jones, D-Plattsburgh; Carrie Woerner, D-Round Lake; and Robert Smullen, R-Meco.
“We request that whatever information the task force generated be provided to us so that we may share it with our local elected officials, chambers of commerce, public safety officers and many others who remain eager for solutions to help address this important issue,” they said.
Drafting a report with recommendations for potential solutions and policies to improve cell phone service in rural and remote communities in upstate New York was the main purpose of the task force, according to the department.
The task force spent state funds for detailed mapping of cellular coverage across New York to help identify gaps in service that prevent the ability to make or receive a call on a mobile telephone in many rural or sparsely populated areas upstate.
“Once the report is completed and delivered to the governor, the task force will have fulfilled its mission,” according to Empire State Development.
The report is nearing completion and is expected to be released imminently, Empire State Development spokeswoman Kristin Devoe said in a statement Thursday.
“The COVID pandemic has underscored the critical importance of access to telecommunications services for all New Yorkers,” Devoe said. “ESD remains committed to expanding cellular coverage across upstate New York and continues to work with government partners, including the Adirondack Park Agency, to leverage existing assets and improve regulations to promote cellular infrastructure deployment. The report is in the final stages of review, and we expect the final report from the Upstate Cellular Coverage Task Force to be released very shortly.”
The department would not provide a more specific time frame about the publication of the report.
Assembly member Jones attended three task force meetings in Albany in the fall of 2019.
The group did not reconvene after session resumed in 2020, which quickly ended in statewide lockdowns that March when New York was the global epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Certainly, it continues to be a very important issue for myself and my constituents,” Jones said. “We have large gaps of areas in the north country where we don’t have cell service.”
Jones has sent three letters to the executive chamber and Empire State Development officials since fall 2020 requesting an update on the task force’s work and anticipated report. Neither agency responded to the correspondence.
“We just need to find out where we’re at, or, at least give a direction in where we’re going and what ideas have come out of it,” Jones said of the task force Thursday.
Officials heard from regulators and had informative discussions about how they could secure better cell phone service for New Yorkers. Like high-speed internet access, lacking cell phone service also poses a public safety and economic development issue in contacting authorities in an emergency or attracting businesses to Northern New York or rural communities.
The task force discussed higher, well-hidden cell phone towers for areas like Adirondack Park as opposed to more towers spread out.
Household landlines have started to dwindle, with many people solely relying on using their cellular or mobile telephone, preventing utility companies from investing in landline upgrades.
Task force members attempted to engage providers to cover rural areas and fill in large gaps of cell and broadband service.
“Most times, it comes down to the bottom line if they can provide that service,” Jones added. “We just want to see some of the recommendations that were made. We were all excited the governor had formed this task force to tackle this issue, and we just want to see some of these ideas implemented.”