CHATHAM — The push for rural broadband has taken on greater urgency in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, with schools finishing the year in distance learning mode and many workplaces choosing to keep operations online for the foreseeable future.
Chatham is surveying residents on broadband access in an effort to locate areas of the town that lack coverage.
Surveying the public is one of few ways to map broadband service, as the two area providers are hesitant to reveal where they operate, said Chatham Town Councilman Vance Pitkin, who is leading the town’s newly formed broadband committee.
The two internet service providers that serve Chatham — Charter Communications, known locally as Spectrum, and Consolidated Communications — are in competition and are reluctant to say where they have built their fiber optic cables or where they plan to build next, Pitkin said.
Chatham residents can respond to the survey at www.chathamnewyork.us.
Residents with and without adequate internet coverage are being asked to participate. The town is hoping to receive at least 100 replies.
The committee believes that groups of neighbors who lack adequate internet coverage will be more effective if they join together to advocate for coverage with the service providers, according to a statement from the town.
Areas without service are often located in close proximity to areas with service, and by banding together, it is possible that coverage could be extended for no fee or for a negotiated fee, according to the statement.
Based on Pitkin’s limited access to maps of Spectrum’s coverage areas, he said it appears that approximately 75% of Chatham is covered by broadband. Some residents may be unaware that they fall into areas where broadband is available, Pitkin said.
The importance of internet access became apparent in March as the coronavirus pandemic forced school and work functions online. With the possibility looming that distance learning may continue into the fall, internet coverage is more crucial than ever before, Pitkin said.
The town is not alone in pushing for better broadband coverage; lawmakers including Rep. Antonio Delgado D-19 have repeatedly spoken out on the matter.
“When you live in a rural community, you don’t have densely populated areas, the demand is not as high. The return on investment for capital investors is not what they desire, which explains in part why private actors have not invested in rural communities,” Delgado said at a virtual town hall in April.
“The problem is our government has taken on the mentality of a private investor and continues to abandon promoting the general welfare,” he added.
The Federal Communications Commission’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund will award internet service providers with $16 billion in funding over 10 years to build out voice and broadband service in rural areas. The FCC will begin taking bids through a reverse auction process starting in October.
The state was originally excluded from receiving any of the $16 billion, but that decision was overturned under pressure from lawmakers including Delgado.
Charter Communications, or Spectrum, requested a waiver to exclude 2,127 census blocks from Rural Digital Opportunity Fund eligibility, a move opposed by Delgado and Assemblywoman Didi Barrett, D-106.
The waiver was sought “to avoid overbuilding areas in which Charter has already begun the process of deploying service,” according to the request.
The FCC has announced it would grant Charter Communications’ request, a move that will reduce broadband competition in areas where Charter is required to build as part of its 2016 merger with Time Warner Cable.
Delgado assailed the FCC’s ruling on Monday.
“The news that more than 2,000 census blocks will be excluded from these funds once again leaves our upstate communities behind and furthers the digital divide,” Delgado said. “I urge the FCC to reconsider this decision and allow our upstate communities the opportunity to apply for these funds.”
Lara Pritchard, Charter’s senior director of communications for the Northeastern Region, said this is an issue of timing, as buildouts are already underway.
“The best way for the FCC to ensure the most effective use of scarce subsidies and increase access for as many unserved New Yorkers as possible was to grant Charter’s petition to concentrate these subsidies on the nearly 9,000 truly unserved Rural Digital Opportunity Fund-eligible areas in the state,” the company said in a statement. “Whether it is work, school, or keeping in touch with friends and family, high-speed connectivity has never been more important, and the FCC’s action will prioritize access as quickly and to as many unserved families and businesses as possible.”