BINGHAMTON, N.Y.—Bringing high speed broadband internet to New York State’s underserved and unserved rural communities has never felt more possible. That was one of the prevailing feelings in the air at the Upstate Rural Broadband Conference held in Binghamton on June 28.
That’s the feeling that comes with $65 billion in federal funding for the country to address the issue of adequate access to broadband internet — an issue that, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic moving workplaces and classrooms online, was not fully understood or at least embraced as a priority by government, but has acutely affected rural and poorer urban communities across the U.S.
The $65 billion in funds were directed toward broadband as a part of the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which was signed into law in Nov. 2021. The $65B in federal funds will be administered by the office’s of individual state governments through grants that will be contingent on the need illustrated by maps from the Federal Communications Commission FCC, which is in the midst of updating what are widely criticized as deeply inaccurate maps.
The conference was hosted by Southern Tier 8 Regional Board, a planning and development agency serving counties in the regions of Central New York and the Southern Tier — and is currently behind the second largest by land mass broadband project in the country — bringing parties from the region and from across the country that have worked on the issue of broadband into one room to talk shop and share lessons.
Local problems, local solutions
While access to the internet is regarded as a service on par with utilities like water, sewer, or public infrastructure like roads and bridges, access to high speed broadband internet has largely been determined by the marketplace across the country. The bottom line of large companies is the determinant for who has quality internet, and who doesn’t.
For a for-profit company, building out into low-income and or sparsely populated communities isn’t in line with their incentives. As economic and social reliance on the internet has grown, the effect has been a growing inequity expressed in rural areas, and poorer urban areas in the United States where. This long standing condition have bred a sentiment within some communities experiencing unaffordable, inadequate or just no access to broadband internet to look for solutions stemming stem, at least in part, from within their own area.
That much was apparent from some of the conference panelists and speakers.
Speaking about the lack of progress in recent history to introduce broadband across the Southern Tier and rural New York, conference panelist Heather Gould, a former CEO of the Fiber Broadband Association and a Vice President at Mears Group, said “We as a nation cannot afford to continue to fail these communities.”
Regarding the FCC’s broadband maps Gould said that, “You cannot rely on the data that any agency or company submits to an agency. You have to be self reporting in order for any area to have accurate mapping of its capacity in terms of broadband.”
Chris Mitchell, Director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, said, “Fundamentally, we need local solutions that are rooted in local problems.”
Mitchell spoke to the continued relevance that fiber networks have over other less reliable and fleeting technologies, citing satellite, and 4G LTE as examples of internet services that haven’t delivered on replacing broadband internet’s speed and reliability.
For these reasons and to address the high price of broadband internet, the Town of Dryden has been working on establishing a municipal broadband service, Dryden Fiber. Dryden is close to finishing the infrastructure for the pilot program.
While Dryden has shown that it has the organization, and administrative capacity to pull off such a feat, this heavy lift is likely out of reach for most towns and villages smaller than Dryden.
Working with an established ISP, or a county government embarking on a broadband internet service or coordinating the work to fill in gaps, are all plans of attack that may lay ahead for communities without the resources and personnel to address the issue. One of the resounding recommendations that came from speakers at the conference was getting out ahead of the planning, and having a direction to go in once federal funds move into state hands and grant programs in action.
This is in part because supply chain problems, and labor shortages are expected to persist, as well as a surging demand for fiber cable, which is also motivation for early financial planning.
Conference panelist Tom Coverick, Managing Director of Keybanc Capital Markets who has focused on financing large fiber network projects, said, “My message is with rates rising the way they are, with the cost of fiber skyrocketing, with the scarcity of labor, it’s not in anyone’s best interest, in my opinion, to wait to put your financing plan together to see what federal programs are going to provide you with.”
New York State’s ConnectALL Initiative and the Appalachian Regional Commission POWER Initiative are providing grant funding specifically for broadband planning.
The flood of federal funding coming towards addressing broadband marks a massive opportunity — one that demands a high level of preparing — and the hope that the issue can effectively be put behind the region and beyond.
“There is money coming, and so is Santa Claus,” said Coverick.