‘Broadband for all’ a failure for many

Assemblymember Marjorie Byrnes, R-Caledonia, and Senator George Borrello, R-Sunset Bay.

All you have to say is “broadband access” and the frustration is palpable. Our offices have been inundated with calls and messages from parents, business owners and community leaders who are tired of Albany’s promises to bring high-speed internet access to their communities.

As your representatives in the New York State Assembly and Senate, we want you to know that we hear you and are fighting to bring 21st century connectivity to our region.

We are taking steps to hold the governor responsible for his pledge to bring broadband internet access to all of New York State.

Our mission is critical. People across the 133rd Assembly District and the 57th Senate District lack reliable high-speed broadband internet. Many have no access at all.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

In 2015, Governor Cuomo established the NY Broadband Program, which he called the “Broadband for All” program. Funded with $500 million in taxpayer money, it was supposed to kick start the state’s broadband internet expansion and be complete by 2018. It’s 2020 and we’re still waiting for “Broadband for All.”

As if the delay wasn’t bad enough, Governor Cuomo passed a tax on fiber optic cable in state rights-of-way as part of the 2019-2020 state budget. The fee is charged by the foot, which disproportionately impacts rural regions and makes broadband expansion projects cost prohibitive for most carriers.

Senator Borrello introduced Senate Bill 8858 to repeal this counterproductive tax and called the governor out for saying he supports broadband access while enacting regressive taxes that hold the process back. Charging for the use of state rights-of-way is a disincentive to expansion. No fee is charged for water, sewer, phone or electrical lines in state rights-of-way, because those utilities are essential for homes and businesses

While Governor Cuomo claims his Broadband for All initiative has brought broadband internet to 98 percent of New Yorkers, that figure is widely acknowledged to be extremely inaccurate.

Senator Borrello has called on the New York State Public Service Commission to independently research and accurately identify all areas of New York State that lack broadband access.

There are financial resources available to help support broadband projects. In 2017, New York State was awarded $170 million from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) under the Connect America Fund for broadband expansion. To date, our state has only received $55.4 million of that money.

Assemblywoman Byrnes and her colleagues in the Assembly Republican Conference requested accelerated release of the remaining funds by the end of 2020. At the same time, a letter was sent to the governor and state legislative leaders seeking the creation of a fair allocation process to ensure that funds received from the federal government are distributed to rural areas.

Livingston County has also applied for a USDA grant to bring over 400 miles of fiber optic cable to Livingston County’s most rural and underserved areas.

We have submitted letters of support for this application, stressing the need for our constituents in rural, underserved areas.

The COVID-19 pandemic made the importance of broadband access clear. Those with high-speed internet connections were able to take remote school classes, conduct business, and connect with family and friends.

Those without broadband connections were isolated and without the resources they needed.

Parents were forced to drive their children to fast-food restaurant parking lots to access wi-fi so their kids could download schoolwork. Many adults, forced to work from home, found they could not do so efficiently and effectively without broadband.

Broadband is no longer a luxury or something that’s “nice to have.” It’s a necessity and we need increased access to high-speed internet connections as soon as possible.

What experts call the digital divide is actually a digital chasm and the pandemic made that crystal clear. Even this year’s census, which is vitally important to the allocation of government funding, is being conducted online. Undercounting members of our communities will cost us money that is vitally needed for programs.

The 2020 federal CARES Act, passed in response to the pandemic, includes funding for broadband expansion. We have asked President Trump and our congressional representatives to make sure our rural areas receive a significant portion of that funding due to the disproportionate impact of COVID on New York.

We know our constituents can compete with anyone from anywhere in the world as long as they have a level playing field. The lack of widespread broadband accessibility is unfair and it’s holding our regional economy back.

We are fighting to bring you the broadband access you need and deserve.

Marjorie Byrnes, R-Caledonia, represents New York’s 133rd Assembly District, which includes all of Livingston County and parts of Monroe and Steuben counties.

George Borrello, R-Sunset Bay, represents New York’s 57th Senate District, which includes parts of Livingston County and all of Allegany, Cattaraugus and Chautauqua counties.

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