Orleans provides backdrop for congressman’s broadband focus

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 21 March 2014 at 12:00 am

Photo by Tom Rivers – U.S. Rep. Chris Collins, center, chaired a Congressional field hearing in Albion on Thursday about broadband Internet access. Collins is joined by Andy Karellas (left), a staff member for the House Committee on Small Business, and Ted Alexander, a senior legislative assistant for Collins.

ALBION – When Congressman Chris Collins needed a location for a field hearing, a backdrop for the challenges of bringing broadband Internet to a community, he picked Albion in Orleans County.

County officials and the town leaders have struggled to get industry and government leaders to expand the service in rural pockets of the county.

Industry officials report that 95 percent of the county is covered with broadband, but Legislature Chairman David Callard said the coverage may be as low as 50 percent. It hurts local businesses, residents and students who are at a competitive disadvantage in an increasingly wired world.

Callard updated Collins on the local efforts to document the gaps in coverage and a push to expand service. Callard and officials from five other counties attended a Congressional field hearing and then a roundtable discussion about rural broadband access.

Collins chose Albion as the location for the hearing, which Callard believes is a first in Orleans County’s history. Testimony offered at the House Subcommittee on Health and Technology will be shared with the House Small Business Committee, which includes Collins.

“It’s a national priority to get 100 percent coverage,” Collins said at the hearing.

The Small Business Committee is nonpartisan and committing to growing small businesses, Collins said. Broadband access for everyone is critical for boosting the rural economy, he said.

“We don’t have the political infighting going on,” he said about the Small Business Committee. “We want to do what’s best for America.”

Industry officials and Oakfield farmer Kendra Lamb, left, testified during the hearing.

Broadband Internet providers have invested billions of dollars in upgrading and expanding their infrastructure, but they said in some cases it doesn’t make financial sense to go everywhere.

Some rural areas have too few households or customers to justify a company’s investment in broadband infrastructure, industry officials said at the hearing.

To reach “the last mile” and blanket the region and country with broadband, industry leaders said some government resources will be needed in a partnership with providers.

“It remains extremely challenging to extend broadband to the most rural areas of New York State, where geographic isolation and topographic issues make it economically infeasible for companies to reach these areas – investment simply cannot be recouped before it is time to reinvest,” said Mark Meyerhofer, director of government relations for Time Warner of Northeast-Western New York.

Time Warner provides high-speed Internet to 2.3 million customers in NY, including 120,000 businesses. The company has invested $2 billion in infrastructure the past four years in NY.

In the rural eight-county 27th Congressional District, which is represented by Collins, Time Warner has built 335 miles of new lines, Meyerhofer said.

The company now provides access to 96 percent of the homes and businesses in its NY footprint. To reach the unserved areas, Meyerhofer said government dollars may be needed in partnership with service providers. The government shouldn’t spend money to duplicate existing, privately funded networks, he said.

“Government programs need to focus on ‘last mile’ services, which is the most difficult and costly part of deployment,” he said during the hearing.

The government should seek a broad base to pay for expanded high-speed Internet so it doesn’t become cost prohibitive to the targeted consumers or taxpayers, Meyerhofer said.

He praised the state’s ConnectNY initiative which has expanded broadband in many rural counties. The program prevents overbuilding, shares costs broadly through state bonds, is provider and technology neutral, and there are no strings attached to network operations, Meyerhofer said.

Jill Canfield is director of legal and industry affairs for The General Broadband Association, which represents 17 rural telecommunications providers in NY and about 900 in the country. She said poorly drafted rules from the Federal Communications Commission have deterred investment in rural broadband networks.

“The rural industry remains hesitant to invest while it awaits a more predictable and investment friendly replacement for the much derided caps and continues to seek its own broadband-focused fund that supports standalone broadband,” she said.

Collins praised the participants at the hearing, and said he will push for a solution to extend the service throughout the rural communities – or else those residents and businesses will struggle to compete in the 21st century.

“When businesses invest, grow, and hire, whole communities will benefit,” Collins said. “Lack of access to broadband is one more roadblock among the many economic challenges rural small businesses have to work hard to overcome.”