Lawmakers push bill to help rural broadband

Sen. Michelle Hinchey, D-Saugerties; and Assemblymember Carrie Woerner, D-Round Lake; pushed Tuesday to pass a bill to streamline the contract process to aid broadband build-outs in rural communities and to distribute installation costs between broadband providers and utility companies more fairly.

ALBANY — Lawmakers representing areas lacking access to high-speed internet are pushing for changes to state law that would clarify who is responsible for paying for portions of broadband expansion projects to help bridge the digital divide plaguing rural communities.

Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner, D-Round Lake, and Sen. Michelle Hinchey, D-Saugerties, on Tuesday spoke about the need to pass their bill before the end of legislative session June 10, or within eight days.

The proposed law would streamline the contract process for broadband expansion projects and more fairly distribute installation costs between broadband service providers and companies that own utility poles that hold new internet service lines.

“Without a 21st century infrastructure, we cannot have a 21st century economy, we cannot have 21st century lifestyles,” Woerner said in West Capitol Park on Tuesday. “The bill will start to address the drivers of cost making it harder for people in rural communities to get access to broadband. That we’re not putting all of those costs on the backs of broadband providers, but that we are sharing it between the pole owners and broadband providers.”

New high-speed fiberoptic cables are often installed on telephone poles that bring electricity and telephone landline access to every New York home. When new internet service lines are placed on utility poles, broadband providers are often hit with exorbitant unforeseen fees and costs, including to replace the entire pole, which frequently increases total project costs to several times higher than a company budgeted.

The additional costs disincentivize small broadband providers from expanding coverage in rural communities, Hinchey said.

“They’re forced to scale back their build-out or move to easier-to-service communities because they’re facing exorbitant costs at the hands of big utilities,” she said. “Our bill states that we can no longer make our small broadband providers foot the bill for an entirely new pole when all they need is a small segment of that pole to attach their infrastructure so families down the road can get online.”

The current regulations have driven up the cost of broadband expansion projects, or building out lines to serve every home, regardless of the number of homes per mile.

Rules have increased costs to deliver broadband to an unaffordable rate, Woerner said, from a break-even rate of four houses per mile to almost 12 houses per mile.

“So clearly, any community that has a low density is going to have a much higher cost to get broadband,” she said.

Utility poles are largely owned by companies, not local governments.

The proposed law would require broadband companies pay for the portion of utility pole costs needed because of broadband improvements — not to allow utility companies to charge broadband providers to replace the entire pole, especially if it was already slated for capital improvements or maintenance.

New York is not regulated by the Federal Communications Commission, which has similar regulations already in place. If passed, the bill would codify rules similar to the FCC’s in state law.

Upstate and northern New York communities, especially in rural or poor areas, have lacked access to high-speed broadband or internet services for decades. The issue predates the COVID-19 pandemic, which highlighted the need for adequate internet statewide as students shifted to all-online school and university classes, people relied on working remotely and patients accessed virtual health visits with telemedicine.

Woerner and Hinchey both said broadband access continues to be one of the leading issues among constituents.

“I have constituents who take every Zoom meeting from their car from a library over 20 minutes away, and I have families who have to choose between driving to the library parking lot to do their schoolwork or to go to work themselves,” said Hinchey. “These are impossible choices we have forced people to make. Internet is no longer a luxury, it is a lifeline.”

In many rural communities that lack a hospital, such as Greene County, internet access is critical so residents can optimize telehealth medicine, the senator said.

Woerner and Hinchey are working to push the Legislature to pass the bill before the session ends this month, and for Gov. Andrew Cuomo to sign it into law.

“We as a state have a responsibility to ensure that every household across New York is connected to the internet, and this bill is one step we can take right now to break down the unnecessary barriers and expand access is communities that need it the most,” Hinchey said. “Every day these households go without reliable, high-speed internet is a day we are leaving them behind.”

Glen Faulkner, president and CEO of Margaretville Telephone Company, which serves rural communities in parts of Delaware, Greene, Schoharie and Ulster counties, said the company supports the measure and its clarification of the financial obligations for utility pole owners and broadband service providers when installing new internet lines.

“Margaretville Telephone Company is very familiar with the financial, administrative and logistical challenges faced when extending broadband infrastructure into the unserved areas,” Faulkner said in a statement Tuesday. “This legislation provides clear expectations on how pole replacement and other pole make-ready costs will be fairly allocated between the broadband service provider and utility pole owners. We thank Sen. Hinchey and Assemblymember Woerner for their efforts to streamline the pole attachment process guaranteeing that critical broadband services can be delivered expeditiously and cost-effectively to all New Yorkers.”

A detailed survey of the state’s broadband connectivity was legislated in the state’s 2021-22 budget mandating a study to examine the access and reliability of high-speed internet service statewide, identifying boundaries of underserved communities that continue to lack connection. An undetermined number of residences and communities continue to lack access to adequate internet connection after Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s $500 million Broadband For All initiative announced in 2016.

Assemblywoman Didi Barrett, D-106, called for state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s office to conduct a statewide audit of broadband services providers’ compliance with agreements that require they provide high-speed internet to communities across New York. The audit is expected to be released in the coming weeks.

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