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Lawmakers Seek Information On Broadband Build-Out

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New York state legislators questioned state officials about the build-out of broadband internet service on Tuesday. The hearing at the state capitol served as an update on the state’s $500 million New NY Broadband Program.

Lawmakers on the Legislative Commission on Rural Broadband want to know: when will all New Yorkers have access to high speed internet?

Democratic Senator Rachel May of Syracuse co-chairs the Commission. 

“People can’t work from home or successfully run their small businesses. And our rural schools, libraries, and communities are at a competitive disadvantage. Bad internet access can lead to lower home prices and less economic development. And access to the internet is also vital to our democracy,” said May.

Testifying Tuesday were Jeffrey Nordhaus, Executive Vice President of Innovation & Broadband at Empire State Development, and Thomas Congdon, Chief of Staff at the New York State Department of Public Service.

Nordhaus said the state is working to ensure that utilities provide access to broadband to all New Yorkers — either fiber or the comparatively slower satellite where fiber is cost-prohibitive.

“You know, we’re holding the utilities to an extremely tight timeframe. And failure is not something that is an option,” said Nordhaus.

This past July, state regulators approved a new buildout schedule with Charter Communications, after the state Public Service Commission in July 2018 revoked its 2016 approval of Charter’s purchase of Time Warner Cable for failing to meet broadband expansion milestones. After reaching the settlement approved this summer, a new buildout schedule for Charter has a completion deadline of December 2021.

Congdon, of the state Department of Public Service, says he is confident the new settlement will ensure more New Yorkers will have access to broadband within the timeframe.

“So the settlement, I think, achieves the policy goals and it establishes much more stringent penalties for future non-compliance. And as I said earlier, I think one of the critical things, is that it removed any ambiguities of where the buildout needs to occur,” said Congdon.

But when it comes to how broadband is regulated, Capital Region Democratic Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner asked: why can’t broadband be classified and regulated like utility companies?

“Wouldn’t we be better off regulating broadband as a utility in order to ensure that the coverage is, in fact, universal?” asked Woerner.

“So that is a core policy question that is being asked all across the country. And the broadband issue, generally, it has been viewed to date as something that has innovated because it wasn’t regulated and you’ve got people on both sides of that policy question.”

The federal government under the Obama administration attempted to regulate broadband as part of an FCC regulatory plan issued in 2015 that never went into effect. The regulations were repealed under the Trump administration in 2017 in the battle over net neutrality.

Several of the lawmakers, most of whom hail from upstate, told stories of their constituents and their frustration with slow satellite service. Here’s GOP Assemblymember Robert Smullen, whose sprawling district covers much of the Adirondack Park.

“They have satellite that’s spotty at best and doesn’t work most of the time, or they’re in these pockets of isolation where they have the lines run through the area, some people have it and some people don’t,” said Smullen.

The officials explained that the latest generation of satellite technology is capable of reaching speeds of 25 mbps, though that’s far below the 100 mbps speed attained by fiber. But the buildout of fiber vs. satellite is a matter of cost. 

Smullen wanted to know, is the state pursuing the best technology?

“Are there any jump-the-curb technology things that we can look forward to be able to let our citizens know that higher speeds are coming?” asked Smullen.

Nordhaus responded that he feels “really great” about the state’s fiber-optic infrastructure plan.

“Fiber optics basically carries data at the speed of light. It is not possible to be leap-frogged. Nothing can go faster.”

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