State representatives from the north country say that although the coronavirus has put a spotlight on this region’s broadband internet weaknesses, solutions — at least legislative ones — are still far off.
Legislators said their constituents are all using the internet to work from home, to do distance learning or just to connect with loved ones while isolating due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, and that one of the main issues they discuss with their representatives is high-speed internet, something these representatives have long pushed to expand in the region.
State Sen. Elizabeth “Betty” Little, R-Queensbury, who is retiring after the end of this year’s legislative session, is spending some of the time she would be in Albany still advocating for improved broadband access.
“Going forward, internet has to be like electricity,” she said during a conference call with county health departments and U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik Monday. “It has to be in every home, and it has to be affordable.”
She said she is working with school districts to compile figures of how many students don’t have internet access.
“We’re going to find out how many kids have been without internet,” she said.
She said she’s heard of students, both in primary school and college, driving to town hall or school parking lots and doing work in their cars to get internet access.
Assemblyman Billy Jones, D-Plattsburgh, said even before the coronavirus hit, around half of the calls his office received were about broadband and cell phone coverage.
Now, he said, he is hearing from teachers and parents, and their focus is more on internet speed. He said increased use of broadband systems result in slower speeds, and that the current systems are being strained by unusually high usage.
Assemblyman Dan Stec, a Republican from Queensbury who is running to succeed Little in the Senate, said no changes are likely to come soon, as the state Legislature is not in session due to the virus and is unlikely to reconvene anytime soon. He also said there is no imminent legislation already in the pipeline for broadband funding or infrastructure.
“These kinds of projects take so long to enter the pipeline and get out the other end,” he said, adding that major broadband improvements are not going to be quick.
Stec said he and other legislators will bring up the coronavirus in future talks about broadband, focusing on how telemedicine and distance learning are reliant on steady broadband. He said this is a “big stick” for them to wield.
“Not that we needed any more ammunition for our argument about the importance of broadband,” Stec said, “but clearly the need for broadband and the shortcomings of not having it right now in the North Country is exacerbated and highlighted by the coronavirus.”
Stec said the governor promised everyone in the state will get broadband.
“That was the governor’s promise, and I’m going to help him keep that promise,” Stec said.
Stec said companies have been awarded state bids to build out, but they were already behind the state’s timeline and stalled even further as construction stopped due to the virus.
Jones said he has heard of fire departments and schools working to set up broadband hot spots.
He also said plans to expand satellite internet in place of cable are not good enough.
“We hear from my constituents consistently about how satellite is not reliable,” Jones said.
Little said that as more companies allow employees to work remotely, the north country may see more people moving here to work, and that the infrastructure has to be here to meet them.