HUDSON — Students in rural schools and patients relying on services offered by hospitals in small towns have found themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide in New York due to large gaps in broadband access that is readily available to most people in urban centers.
That was one of the consistent themes that emerged Friday at a federal hearing hosted by Rep. Antonio Delgado, D-Rhinebeck, who is seeking solutions to extending the availability of high-speed internet access to residents of rural communities in upstate New York.
Those offering input questioned the effectiveness of the use of internet access through satellite networks. The operators of some satellite services have received state funding in remote areas of the North Country and Niagara County, among other regions where homes are so far apart that private companies have avoided offering high-speed broadband due to the high cost of wiring places where homes can be far apart.
David Berman, a retired CBS executive who is now the co-chair of a citizen's group called Connect Columbia, said "huge gaps" still exist in broadband coverage in his region though it received $30 million in state funding.
He said "true broadband" now equates to access to 100 megabits of information per second, growing to 1 gigabit within five years. He noted that the Federal Communications Commission's definition of broadband is "considerably out of date," creating a situation where services in this country have fallen behind those offered by international competitors.
The use of satellite broadband, in some areas, "was applied to theoretically give everyone access, which it decidedly did not." He called that technology "merely a Band-Aid that cannot meet current demand much less the exponentially growing demand" in the future.
Tim Johnson, chief executive officer of the member-owned Otsego Electric Cooperative, headquartered in Hartwick, said broadband services are facing some of the same challenges navigated by the nation's rural electrification program some 80 years ago.
The cooperative, he noted, decided to offer broadband connections in 2017 and are now "off to a great start," but has encountered challenges from the government's reliance on census block maps to determine if an area is served or not served. Better data is needed for the state and federal government, along with private industry, to make funding and investment determinations, he suggested.
Johnson also said the non-profit cooperatives "desperately need" changes in the federal tax code so government grants for broadband will not be taxed as income.
"More than 100 electric co-ops, including my own, are currently working toward meaningful and diverse solutions to bridge the digital divide and jump-start local economies," Johnson said.
The importance of filling the broadband coverage gaps for the families of school children was emphasized by Brian Dunn, superintendent of Middleburgh Central School District, in a Schoharie County community speckled with rolling farm fields.
Broadband access is now a component of "high quality schooling," which is essential to the renewal of Middleburgh, a town still recovering from flooding unleashed by Hurricane Irene in 2011, Dunn said.
The coming arrival of driverless trucks and other vehicles, Dunn said, will alter the job market, making it crucial that students complete school with the digital skills they will need as employment opportunities evolve with technology.
While his district is using grant money to get laptops for all students in grades 7 through 12, Dunn said, the lack of broadband connections in some homes will create "a disadvantage, not only with their own classmates but also with students in the more populated and more resourced parts of the state and country."
Connecting rural Americans to broadband will take "an effective mix of entrepreneurial spirit, access to capital, commitment to community" and federal support, said Jason Miller, general manager of Delhi Telephone Company in Delaware County.
"Robust broadband must be available, affordable, and sustainable for rural small businesses and underserved populations to realize the economic, healthcare, education, and public safety benefits that advanced connectivity offers," said Miller. The use of more accurate mapping data in deciding where services should be extended is vital to ensure that rural residents don't wind up stranded without access to services, he said.
Delgado told CNHI that he expects further progress in advancing broadband access. "The next step is to hold the FCC's feet to the fire" and make funding decisions that allow for federal dollars to be used effectively and efficiently in advancing toward the goal of ending coverage gaps in rural regions.
The reliance on census block maps, the congressman said, has led to flawed assumptions that some areas are being fully served even as many residents still lack access.
In remarks at the forum, Delgado said, "Broadband services should not be treated as a luxury—but as a basic utility and essential for our communities."
Also addressing the forum was an FCC commissioner, Geoffrey Starks.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org