Orleans seeks input on high-speed internet gaps in county

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 3 December 2020 at 3:25 pm

Residents urged to take survey, sharing internet needs, frustrations

A group from Orleans County wants to document the high-speed internet gaps in the county, and hear how a lack of internet access is affecting businesses, students and residents.

The Orleans County United Way received a $50,000 grant to study the issue. It has hired a consultant who has interviewed school, business and community leaders on the issue. Mary Beth Debus, president of Program Savvy Consulting, also has prepared a survey for residents to share about their internet access and how it affects them. (Click here to see the 48-question survey.)

The United Way has formed a steering committee for the Orleans Digital Literacy Initiative. The committee includes Dean Bellack, executive director of the Orleans County United Way; County Legislator Ken DeRoller; Kelly Kiebala, director of the Orleans County Job Development Agency; Robert Batt, executive director of the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Orleans County; and Greg Reed, director of the Orleans County YMCA.

“We are in the information-gathering stage,” Bellack said.

Debus is working to have the community interviews done and surveys tabulated for a report in March. That information will allow the county to then pursue funding through the state or federal government, or through at least 20 foundations.

County Legislator Ken DeRoller said the internet shortcomings are a major barrier for businesses and students, who need high-speed internet access to file reports and do assignments. The lack of high-speed internet, especially in the more rural areas, also is a deterrent to attracting residents, who expect high-speed internet not only for work and school, but for leisure when watching Netflix or other videos and television.

Even migrant farmworkers want high-speed internet when they are staying in Orleans County. Not having it can be a deterrent to attracting farm labor, DeRoller said.

There are 10,500 housing structures with about 14,000 units in the county. DeRoller said about 30 percent do not have access to high-speed internet. Many others don’t have enough bandwidth to accommodate multiple devices at once in a home.

That is a concern shared by the five school district superintendents in Orleans County. Many students have been frustrated with remote learning at home because they can’t download homework or watch teachers give instruction through videos.

“It has become so clear there are real barriers to various needs within the community,” Debus said.

Another consultant has estimated it would cost $4 million to bring broadband to everyone in the county, through a combination of cable and wireless. DeRoller said Orleans County is ready to apply in a new road of federal funding, with applications expected to be accepted in January.

The cost of the service also is a barrier for some residents. The survey will ask that question: if the needed bandwidth is too costly?

The committee also believes there is a knowledge gap for many residents, especially senior citizens, with using computers. They might want to order groceries online and pick them up or have them delivered but might not know how to use Instacart.

The survey and study could show there is a need for computer literacy educators in the community to help people use the technology, including downloading and using apps.

There is also an option for telehealth services where residents could communicate with healthcare professionals through Facetime or other video conferencing. The survey asks residents if they know how to use that technology.

The committee is currently focused on phase 1, the data gathering. Phase 2 of the initiative will list the internet needs in the county and “how to get there” with funding the project.

The group has three focuses with the high-speed internet expansion: employment, education and equity.

DeRoller said the internet isn’t a matter of convenience. It’s a critical issue for the county residents and making the community attractive for living and working.

“We need to be competitive in this environment,” he said.