GHENT — State and local officials gathered together to highlight the importance of broadband infrastructure in rural parts of Columbia County.
U.S. Rep. Antonio Delgado, D-19, was joined by other state and local elected officials in Ghent on Monday. They discussed federal funding to help deliver broadband access to 300 homes and businesses in the towns of Ghent, Canaan, New Lebanon and Austerlitz.
“The bottom line is, it’s the 21st century, we’re in New York in the richest and most powerful country in the world,” Delgado said. “We have a lot of folks across the country going without this basic necessity. Necessity. Not a luxury for a few, but necessity.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted how critical broadband infrastructure is, Delgado said. Speakers highlighted how important reliable high-speed internet access became for students to have access to an education and for people working remotely to do their job.
“We realized how essential it is,” Delgado said. “If you’re a small business owner trying to be able to sustain yourself through these challenging times you might want to have broadband access. If you’re a homeowner or parent who’s trying to figure out how to make sure your young ones are able to educate themselves you might want to have broadband access. If you’re a senior who’s trying to figure out how to get telemedicine you might want to have broadband access.”
The appropriations package includes $829,594 for 300 homes and businesses in those four towns, Delgado said. He plans to track the package as it goes on to the Senate.
Delgado said he is going to do everything he can to make sure the funds are ultimately included in the budget.
“We’re here for an issue that is so much more than partisan politics,” said state Sen. Daphne Jordan, R-Halfmoon. “That being the expansion of and investment in broadband. We’re here to share and celebrate some welcome developments of new investments for the towns.”
Broadband access is a vital quality-of-life issue, Jordan said.
“This is what it looks like when government works together at the local level at the state level and at the federal level,” said Assemblywoman Didi Barrett, D-Hudson. “And we can do that, we can keep doing that with the right people in place, the right partners and making sure it happens.”
Local officials also discussed some of the issues they have seen in their respective towns.
“We had two different companies serve us on a limited basis for many years,” Ghent Town Supervisor Michael Benvenuto said. “However, the infrastructure was decades old and was never replaced.”
The town of Ghent started a broadband committee about five years ago, Benvenuto said. They approached other towns to follow suit, which led to the formation of the Broadband Community Action Network, or Connect Columbia.
The town of Canaan has the oldest population in the county, said Canaan Town Supervisor Brenda Adams.
“Even without a pandemic, access to health services in rural areas has been a major challenge when 49% of your population is 65 or older, when there is very limited access to public transportation and broadband coverage in our town covers around 70%,” Adams said.
For much of the pandemic, schools had to go online and that created challenges for students and families who did not have access to broadband.
“We had students who did not have a fair shot at being successful in their education,” New Lebanon Town Supervisor Tistrya Houghtling said. “They didn’t have access to the online classrooms that so many of us benefited from.”
Houghtling, a member of the Columbia County Broadband Committee, said the committee got together with all of the superintendents from all of the county’s school districts to talk about how they could obtain access for all the students who did not have it. She said students were sitting in library, town hall and school parking lots for eight hours a day to do their school work from cars.
“We met with the providers throughout the county who provide internet access and a lot of their solutions were, We’re going to give a discount,” Houghtling said. “And I said, well, that’s wonderful, for those who have access and that’s also very important, but for houses that don’t have fiber access to their homes, a discount does nothing.”
Delgado said he is going to monitor the ongoing debates and discussions surrounding the funding, and that he is encouraged that people are working together to try and get this done.