The upheaval of the past several months—from the novel coronavirus pandemic to the protests of police brutality following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis—has opened many eyes to deep-seated inequities in New York and across the nation.

The key to addressing these inequities in large part lies in improving access to information. In this day and age, that means ensuring everyone—no matter the person’s address, skin color or income—can get online. And to do that, we need the next-generation connectivity of 5G.

This may seem overly simple. But the reality is every New Yorker deserves and needs access to the innovative and, at times, lifesaving technologies that 5G can facilitate.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has recognized this by twice proposing in his executive budget a streamlined permitting process for small cells. If we do not heed his call and develop a uniform framework for updating the state’s communications infrastructure, then New York’s economy and some of our most already underserved citizens will fall even further behind.

The pandemic upended life as we know it, forcing us online for work, school and health care visits—even socialization. In the process, we realized that many individuals—often those most in need of services, classes and continuity—were unable to fully participate in this new “digitized” reality because they lacked adequate and reliable online access.

In the alone, more than 500,000 households lack internet access. This is unacceptable, but it’s not a problem unique to the five boroughs. A recent Common Sense Media report found that 27% of New York students lack adequate internet access, and 45% of them are Black, Latino or Native American.

This is clearly a statewide problem. What is required is a statewide solution, and concerns about local control over the permitting process cannot stand in the way of providing access to a service that has become as integral to daily life as water or electricity.

As the state reopens following the near-complete lockdown necessary to flatten the Covid-19 infection curve, it is clear that the new normal will keep many of us online far more frequently than in the pre-pandemic days. A successful recovery–both economic and personal–must benefit all New Yorkers, and that cannot be achieved if online inequity continues.

More than half of homes across the U.S. had only wireless service during the first half of 2018, according to data compiled by the National Center for Health Statistics. Data compiled by the Pew Research Center shows that young, minority and low-income individuals rely on wireless devices to search for jobs, access medical care and seek educational resources. In emergency situations up to 80% of 911 calls are made from mobile phones.

The digital divide is real. We can bridge that divide if we invest now in key infrastructure, including small cell technology that will bring fast and robust connectivity to underserved areas of our city and state.

Small cell networks consisting of antennas installed on municipal infrastructure, such as streetlights and public utility poles, underpinned by fiber cable, will serve as the backbone for 5G. For every New Yorker to access the next generation of wireless networks, the number of small cell deployments must increase. That means policymakers and elected officials need to step in.

More than two dozen states thus far have statewide regulations to provide fair and efficient guidelines for municipalities to charge uniform fees and grant equal access to utility poles for small cell attachment.

To keep New York’s economy competitive, protect citizens and secure a bright future for every constituent, we must develop and pass legislation on the issue now.

The future depends on it.

Kevin Parker is a New York state senator representing, Flatbush, Midwood, Kensington, Park Slope, Windsor Terrace and East Flatbush.

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