Remove the obstacles

A collection of wires and cables linked to computer hardware provide wired and wireless high-speed internet connection. People became more dependent on reliable internet connection for digital medicine, work and education during the novel coronavirus pandemic. Watertown Daily Times

It would be difficult to identify an elected official who doesn’t support efforts to expand high-speed internet.

U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., spoke about this issue last week in Lewis County. He met with community leaders and business representatives to highlight the money coming from the federal government to ensure everyone has access to broadband internet service.

“The bottom line: The pandemic has highlighted certain fault lines in our society, and one of them is the lack of broadband,” he said, according to a story published Aug. 18 in the Watertown Daily Times. “We learned, with the pandemic, that the internet is just like the telephone, just like electricity. The internet is a necessity, not a luxury.”

Schumer is correct. The novel coronavirus pandemic demonstrated how vital high-speed internet is to everyone.

Students have used it for classroom instruction while their schools remained closed. Visiting online with health care professionals became essential for patients. Employees connected with co-workers in virtual settings so they could stay home and potentially avoid becoming infected.

At Tug Hill Vineyards in the town of Lowville, Schumer discussed sources of federal funding that’s been allocated for broadband expansion. He referenced the $1 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021. He also mentioned the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 and American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.

Nearly 12% of the $550 billion in new spending authorized in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act has been designated to increase access to high-speed internet. The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 made revenue available to groups such as the Northern Border Regional Commission for broadband expansion. And the American Rescue Plan offered billions of dollars to continue these efforts.

It’s great that elected officials recognize the need to ensure as many households as possible are hooked up to high-speed internet. Accomplishing this goal will take a sizable investment, and we commend those who are working to carry this out.

But that’s only half the battle. Other big obstacles include ensuring that contractors are able to perform the necessary work and easing statutory burdens from various levels of government.

Through the New NY Broadband Program established in 2015, then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo said that more than 99 percent of state residents would have access to high-speed internet. The initiative launched with a $500 million investment. Cuomo announced a third round of grants two years ago to provide “the last mile funding to ensure high-speed internet access for all New Yorkers,” according to a Jan. 31, 2018, news release from the governor’s office.

But these projects have been hampered with some significant problems. One has been the failure of some vendors to complete the work they pledged to carry out.

In 2019, Mohawk Networks announced it was unable to finish the project it undertook in Lewis County. Owned by the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe’s Tewathahonni Corp., the firm was awarded a $6.4 million project grant for the $7.9 million broadband project to include all of Lewis County and some sites in Jefferson, St. Lawrence and Oneida counties in March 2017.

Frontier Communications Inc. received a $6.2 million in July 2019 to provide broadband internet in Lewis County. However, it filed for bankruptcy protection last year. While it emerged from bankruptcy this year, this process has delayed its work.

Earlier this year, state officials threw a curveball into the effort to expand broadband internet access. As part of the 2021-22 state budget approved and signed into law in April, legislators included a provision that compels internet providers to offer services to eligible low-income families for $15 per month. This applies to companies with at least 20,000 subscribers.

In addition, the state Department of Transportation last year “started charging fees to fiber optic line installers who build lines in a state-controlled highway right of way after the 2019-2020 state budget contained language that enacted a right of way tax or use and occupancy fee. The DOT requires installers enter annual fee-bearing permits to charge corporations per foot, per cable, for fiber optic lines they own. It does not apply to phone, water or sewer lines,” according to a story published July 4, 2020, by the Watertown Daily Times.

This fee disproportionately affects rural areas such as Northern New York because it is assessed per foot. For geographically dense areas, the overall cost is lower and the expense per user is far less, meaning providers can attempt to pass along the tax in terms of higher fees. But in rural areas where there are fewer users who are much farther apart, the fees are proving to be excessive.

Combined, these two mandates will thwart broadband expansion in regions with fewer residents. Democratic lawmakers who dominate the state Legislature said they consulted with large internet providers when drafting the requirement to offer service to low-income families for $15 per month. But smaller companies were excluded from these conversations, and the details of the program reflect this lack of input; it doesn’t really take the needs of more sparsely populated areas into account.

We appreciate the focus on proving revenue to increase access to high-speed internet. But if these other issues aren’t addressed, progress on this won’t continue. Officials must review the problems hindering efforts to carry out this work and resolve them as soon as possible.

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