As people in Columbia and Greene counties continue to work and learn from home because of COVID-19 restrictions, the strain placed on limited broadband access threatens to clog and slow down the internet.
Funding for rural broadband deployment in the Twin Counties is on its way. At least, we hope it is.
The Federal Communication Commission awarded $640,296 to Mid-Hudson Data Corp. as part of the 12th wave of funding from the Connect America Fund Phase II Auction. In 2018, the fund allocated $1.5 billion over the next 10 years to expand broadband to more than 700,000 unserved rural homes and small businesses in 45 states.
We have two questions: 1. How many waves of awards will it take to expand broadband service? 2. How much money does it really take to achieve this goal?
Internet providers that receive funds must build out to 40% of the assigned homes and businesses in the areas the provider successfully bid on within three years. Build-outs must also increase by 20% in each subsequent year until the build-out is completed at the end of the sixth year.
Mid-Hudson Data Corp. is expected to receive funds this month. The company will use the funds to provide high-speed broadband service to 459 locations in its service area, including Greene and Columbia counties.
The pandemic has exacerbated a disparity that leaves many upstate businesses, students and seniors without access to affordable or reliable broadband. With families spending more time at home and small businesses closing brick-and-mortar stores and moving online, it may become more difficult for children to attend remote-learning classes, for online shopping and for critical telehealth conferences.
The health crisis has heightened the awareness of how important it is to get broadband around Greene and Columbia counties as quickly as possible.
Besides the issues revealed by the pandemic, there is also a matter of location.
Ancram Town Supervisor Art Bassin said Mid-Hudson Data Corp. does not serve any areas in his town.
“We need to get money allocated not necessarily by corporation, but by location,” Bassin said. “The underserved areas are the ones that really need to be paid attention to.”
Bassin said once unserved areas have the funds, they can divide the money among service providers that are willing to install the necessary infrastructure to wire those communities.
“Nobody’s really stepped up to fill that gap,” Bassin said.
And using census blocks in rural areas creates odd borders, leaving some houses on the wrong side of the street or a few houses down from where the wire ends.
Internet companies seem reluctant to follow through. Ghent Broadband Committee Chairman David Berman said that if he wanted to see Spectrum’s plans for the town of Ghent, as a town official, he would have to sign a nondisclosure agreement for a competitive issue.
That doesn’t track for Berman.
“If there were tons of competition in Columbia County, every street would have been covered by now,” he said. “They treat us like they would a more densely populated area and we suffer for that.”
Despite the health and economic ravages of a pandemic, this is the perfect time for governments and internet companies to put their money where their promises are and deliver greater broadband.