Aug 12, 2021

Bronston Comments: Hochul to Face Broadband Spending Decisions

Featuring: David E. Bronston

Next NY Gov. Hochul to Face Broadband Spending Decisions

A sudden transition in New York governors could affect how the state spends federal infrastructure and pandemic rescue dollars tagged for broadband, said state observers after Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced his resignation Tuesday, effective in two weeks. With Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) succeeding him, some predicted a change in style from a governor who they said had outsize influence over the New York Public Service Commission.

Hochul will become the first woman to govern New York. From 2011 to 2012, she was a U.S. House member representing a Western New York district that includes Buffalo. Previously, she was a county clerk in Erie County. In the 2014 Democratic primary for lieutenant governor, Hochul defeated Columbia University law professor Timothy Wu, who coined the term “net neutrality” in 2003.

“The Cuomo administration treated the PSC like an agency instead of a separate authority,” said New York Assembly member Amy Paulin (D) in an interview. Paulin chairs the Corporations, Authorities and Commissions Committee that oversees the PSC: “We created the system for a reason and that some independence would allow for better decision-making.” Paulin hopes Hochul will address broadband accessibility, including infrastructure and affordability, she said.

“This is clearly a very difficult time for New York State,” PSC Chair John Howard said in a Tuesday statement. “I have great confidence in Hochul’s abilities, having worked with her since her first day in office.” Hochul and Cuomo didn’t comment.

Hochul “faces a depleted” broadband program office “when the state has a critical role in delivering significant federal funding for broadband to local projects,” said Joshua Breitbart, Leadership in Government fellow at Open Society Foundations. As the Regional Economic Development Councils chair, Hochul “led the state program to grant $500 million for rural broadband, and she has strong relationships with local government, but the pandemic made plain just how much work remains to be done for universal broadband,” said Breitbart, a former broadband adviser to New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio (D). “She needs a team that is totally focused on this challenge and can mobilize resources across agencies.”

Oversight remains “critical to keep bad actors in check,” said Breitbart: An increasingly active legislature “may look to step in if there’s a void,” he said.

Hochul will have much on her plate, and telecom might not be the highest priority, but she will have to focus soon on how to spend federal broadband money, including who will manage the dollars, said Phillips Lytle’s David Bronston. Hochul has experience with economic development and early in her term as lieutenant governor helped lead the state’s broadband program, the wireless attorney said. Her time in local government might help build consensus on telecom issues affecting localities, Bronston added.

“Hochul has a better understanding of upstate issues … so she will start with a good grasp on ongoing rural access issues that someone from downstate would not automatically have,” emailed Stop the Cap Director Phillip Dampier. That could be important with federal infrastructure money coming, he said. Dampier predicted Hochul will “keep a relative hands-off position on the PSC” before next year’s election.

Cuomo exercised “substantial control” over the PSC through appointments and selecting chairs, said Bronston. “In his very hands-on style, he made sure he had policy control over it.” One key example was when the state threatened in 2018 to kick Charter Communications out of the state of New York for missing broadband deployment targets (see 1907110045), Bronston said. Hochul is pragmatic and doesn’t have a big ego, he said.

“I would be surprised if a Hochul administration exerts the same kind of pervasive political micro-managing as Cuomo’s,” emailed Frank Robinson, a New York PSC administrative law judge from 1977-1997. Robinson joined several other retired PSC officials in a 2019 letter complaining about Cuomo’s influence over the Charter proceeding. Robinson said he “was aware second hand how the atmosphere there had been degraded from the ‘good old days’ when there had been a real esprit de corps, a feeling that we were doing work in the public interest without being bent by political pressures.”

“The PSC has always been independent, a fact proven by its long-standing ability to successfully balance the issues of numerous stakeholders, oftentimes with opposing viewpoints, in its many proceedings,” a spokesperson said.