SULLIVAN — For many residents of Sullivan County, the promise of rural broadband service has proven elusive for years. But it wasn't until the COVID-19 pandemic forced tens of thousands of people to work from home or study remotely that the shortcomings of our broadband problem were laid bare.
According to District Superintendent of Sullivan BOCES Dr. Robert Dufour, between eight and 20 percent of his students do not have access to internet and the current bandwidth provided by internet service providers (ISPs) is inadequate during peak times.
“In these uncertain times when remote learning has become a mainstay of public education, the access to stable, reliable and affordable high-speed internet connection is an absolute necessity,” said Dufour.
Dufour said during the recent closure of schools, it became evident that service county-wide had slowed during school hours as thousands of students attempted to log on at the same time.
“The infrastructure of the service providers is simply inadequate to cope with the demand,” he explained. Dufour also mentioned the lack of cell service along the Route 97 river corridor and throughout other parts of the county prohibit the use of alternatives to hard-wired internet connections.
Superintendent for the Liberty Central School District, Dr. Augustine E. Tornatore, said it's an issue for his students as well.
“The importance to Liberty students of reliable and robust internet cannot be overstated. The internet has become a crucial educational tool in recent years, and the COVID-19 health crisis has only punctuated how important it is that all students have the tools and technology they need to succeed in the 21st Century,” Tornatore said.
“In Liberty, as in much of Sullivan County, too many of our students are without high-speed internet, either because of its expense or because it is simply unavailable. This places them at an unfair disadvantage to their peers and is an inequity that must be addressed.”
The problem extends beyond our schools and impacts business and economic development. According to the most recent employment data from the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, the highest unemployment rates are frequently located in counties with the lowest availability of broadband.
On July 22, the state senate passed Senator Jen Metzger's bill to address deficiencies in rural broadband service across New York State.
State Senate Bill S8805 was passed by both houses of the State Legislature and now awaits Governor Andrew Cuomo's signature.
“Long before COVID-19, lack of access to high speed internet had limited economic and educational opportunities in rural districts like mine,” Sen. Metzger said in a press statement last week. “If we want to ensure equal opportunity in today's world and chip away at the urban-rural and rich-poor gaps, then we need to make sure that every New Yorker has affordable access to broadband.”
The bill directs the Public Service Commission (PSC) to study the availability, affordability and reliability of high-speed internet and broadband across New York at a more detailed level. The data collected will be used to draft an access map on the PSC website to indicate internet service by location.
The bill would require the PSC to hold at least four regional public hearings throughout the state. Metzger told the Democrat she'd like to see one of those public hearings held in Sullivan County.
Within a year of those public hearings, the PSC would then need to submit a report to the Governor's Office and the State Legislature with a plan to prioritize broadband access for communities that have experienced negative economic and social impacts as well as absent or insufficient service.
“I support Senator Metzger's bill because it will not only ascertain service gaps, but the cost of residents' service as well,” Dufour said.
Recent studies by Microsoft and BroadbandNow indicate that broadband access data generated by ISPs is not always collected accurately. They suggest that the FCC's methods of collecting data at the census block level ends up missing unserved households.
For example, the FCC reports that broadband is unavailable to 21.3 million Americans. The study conducted by BroadbandNow indicates that number could be as high as 42 million.
“If an Internet Service Provider (ISP) offers service to at least one household in a census block, then the FCC counts the entire census block as covered by that provider,” the study explains. “BroadbandNow Research examined the magnitude of this flaw by manually checking internet availability using FCC data as the source of truth for randomly selected addresses.”
Mike Martucci, Republican candidate for the 42nd State Senate District running against Metzger this November, was critical of the bill, describing it as an empty promise.
“People in the 42nd Senate District and across the state don't need another study to tell them they don't have access to broadband services, they need action,” Martucci said in a statement released last week. “Senator Metzger claims her bill makes broadband more accessible, affordable and reliable, when in reality it does none of those things. If she really cares about the issue, she'd provide funding necessary to build projects and remove taxes that are stepping on the throat of the private sector.”
Metzger counters that taking effective action is only possible when the PSC has accurate data to work from. She says the bill that was just passed, which was approved in the State Senate and Assembly with broad bipartisan support, addresses that need.
“It would be a big mistake to throw money at a problem when we don't have the data on who is connected, what their speeds are and what their costs are,” Metzger said.