SUNY Cobleskill symposium discusses need for broadband in rural areas
COBLESKILL More than 28,000 people in a four-county area including Schoharie and Montgomery have no Internet service, and 24,300 others have Internet access that’s just plain slow.
Roughly 72 percent of the 193,207 people in Delaware, Otsego, Montgomery and Schoharie counties are hooked in with broadband internet service — and getting the remainder online is an essential goal, local officials said Thursday.
About 50 people gathered at SUNY Cobleskill for a Broadband Symposium established by U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson, R-Kinderhook, who is making improved broadband access a priority in his largely rural district.
The cost of building infrastructure to serve a handful of people is a barrier to improved access, but Gibson said the challenges have to be met.
He said his district is one of about 50 in the country that are considered “particularly challenged” when it comes to high-speed internet.
“We don’t have the same center mass, if you will, as we do in a metropolitan area,” he said.
But the advantages of high-speed Internet — increased educational opportunities for youth, economic development advantages and quality of life — all make the goal worthwhile, he said.
“We don’t want to put our head in the sand,” Gibson said.
In general, telecommunications companies seek out areas where they can hook up at least 20 customers over a one-mile area to fiber-optic service, or 10 per mile if those customers are looking for a more expensive service.
Thursday’s meeting included local government officials, representatives of the telecommunication industry and federal and state offices with resources — including grants and loans — that local officials can use to pursue expanded Internet access in their areas.
The forum was targeted to provide these officials with contacts and information about existing programs, but the difficulties involved in taking the next step were made clear, as well.
Robert O’Hara, field representative for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Office, said officials looking to approach the issues face a moving target. Current funding is based on the 2012 Farm Bill, he said; that funding and what it can be used for may change once Congress adopts a new farm bill. Also, he said, technology itself is continually changing and improving,
There are both grants and loans available from the USDA to improve broadband, but funding has been cut and in some cases doesn’t cover operating expenses, so that may have to be tied to other programs. The recent sequester by Congress cut funding for improved Internet access nationwide from $550 million to $60 million, O’Hara said. “We don’t know what the funding will be for next year,” he said.
Though he’s only recently begun using the Internet regularly, Schoharie County Board of Supervisors Chairman Phil Skowfoe said he’s getting a good understanding of why people are looking for improved service, especially those using the slower dial-up variety. He said he began questioning why his service in the rural town of Fulton was so slow, so he upgraded to DSL. “And it’s still not fast enough,” he said.
Middleburgh town Supervisor James Buzon said communities looking to build their population base and improve business climates are at a disadvantage when they lack high-speed Internet.
Both Skowfoe and Buzon learned there may be help that hasn’t yet been pursued: The Southern Tier East Regional Planning Commission can assist with planning and provide funding that can serve as the “matching money” so often required to go forward with grant-funded upgrades.
Assemblyman Pete Lopez, R-Schoharie, likens the modern-day need for high-speed Internet to the early days when some people had electricity and others didn’t. Eventually, electrical hookups were mandated federally.