“Affordable broadband access is critical for rural families, farms and businesses across the country,” U.S. Rep. Antonio Delgado, D-19, warned in a bipartisan letter to congressional leaders last week. “It allows small businesses to thrive, farmers to use precision agriculture technology, students to complete their homework at home, and patients to access modern health care solutions.”

The disparity in broadband access between rural areas like Greene and Columbia counties and urban areas is significant. According to the Federal Communications Commission Broadband Deployment Report of 2019, more than 25% of rural residents don’t have access to sufficient internet speeds, compared to less than 2% of urban residents.

Yet according to the New York State Broadband Program Office, 98% of New Yorkers have access to broadband. But this number is known to be an extreme overestimate because of mapping flaws. If one home within a census block has access to broadband services, the entire block is marked as served, according to the mapping procedure.

Enter Delgado, who proposed two bills that would correct and make more accurate broadband mapping procedures. One is the Broadband Speed Act, to enforce factual advertising of speed rates for rural areas. The second is the Community Broadband Mapping Act, to adjust the current one-served, all-served measurement flaw.

In his letter to Senate and House leaders, Delgado urged them to increase federal funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect Program. The letter was signed by 48 House members and called on leaders of the Senate and House appropriations subcommittees on rural issues to designate $605 million to ReConnect. The program offers loans and grants to businesses and local officials to expand broadband in underserved rural areas. The House of Representatives’ appropriations bill for fiscal year 2020 included the $605 million of funding for ReConnect, but the current Senate appropriations bill has not designated any funding for the program.

Getting the Senate on board would be a good first step and the House needs more than 48 representatives to move the proposed legislation anywhere. ReConnect is badly needed by Columbia County’s outlying regions and by Greene County’s underserved western mountaintop zones. Lack of broadband stifles local small businesses and that, in turn, smothers the economy.

ReConnect and Delgado’s two proposals would represent a great step forward to cure our chronic broadband ills. All three should be debated and approved as quickly as possible.

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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