December 8, 2021

Internet access for all

Cortland County works to get broadband to rural areas

Photo illustration by Todd R. McAdam

Cortland County and the Central New York Regional Planning Board are analyzing data from a recent survey and hope to seek grants to help extend fiber-optic cables to fill gaps in broadband access across the county.

Computers — a wonderful tool and lots of fun. They’re the second most popular device to own after a smartphone. Five years ago, 90% of households had one, but they’re virtually useless without broadband access to the internet, and somewhere between 8% and 66% of the households in Cortland County lack that.

A countywide survey seeking gaps in broadband access showed that approximately 1,500 households — about 8.5% of the county’s 17,745 households — and 120 small businesses cannot connect via broadband, reports the Central New York Regional Planning and Development Board. However, the poll was taken via several methods, one of them a digital survey that needed to be accessed via the internet.

Another study by Microsoft Corp. suggested 65.9% of households in Cortland County — about 11,700 lack broadband access.

“Quite simply, broadband is the basic infrastructure that we all have access to carry out our daily lives in a convenient, efficient manner,” said David Bottar, executive director of the regional planning agency. Whether you’re streaming movies online, doing homework, running a business or going to a doctor’s appointment using telemedicine, internet access is vital.

“In a very short time, it has become a basic infrastructure as critical as the road network in Cortland,” Bottar said.

400 MILES OF GAPS

Cortland County hopes to use data from the survey to expand that infrastructure to its rural areas. Field inventory and survey results show approximately 400 miles of roadway without service, Bottar said, and gaps in service are standard.

“Areas of Cortland County that do not have broadband along their public roadways are fairly comparable to what we’re seeing in our other four counties — Madison, Cayuga, Oswego and the southern portion of Onondaga County,” Bottar said. These counties average anywhere between 350 miles to 450 miles without internet service.

The county awaits guidance from a consultant, but expect a couple of options:

  • A plan to acquire grants to help private internet providers string fiberoptic cable across those 400 miles.
  • A plan to create a municipal broadband service, and take the task on itself, although county Legislature Chairman Paul Heider (R-Cuyler, Solon, Truxton), who represents some of the least-connected parts of the county, suggests that’s not likely.

DRYDEN’S ROUTE

Just 20 minutes down the road, Tompkins County’s town of Dryden is going the municipal route, working to become one of the first in the state to create a municipal broadband service. Local leaders are working with Hunt Engineering, and are looking to buy more than $120,000 worth of fiber optic cable to create a service network for thousands of Dryden residents.

“We want to provide broadband to every household,” said Deputy Town Supervisor Dan Lamb in April. The town’s broadband project has been in the works for a few years, and will likely take another several years before every customer in Dryden has internet access.

Town Supervisor Jason Leifer has estimated that 20% to 25% of kids in the Dryden Central School District don’t have access to the internet.

In Cortland County, the five municipalities with the least service include Cuyler, Homer, Solon, Truxton and Virgil, reports the development board.

“It’s important for everyone in Cortland County to have high-capacity internet access,” Heider said. “We learned from the pandemic how necessary it is, from children having to do school online to businesses and even our county telecommuting.”

The expansion of reliable broadband services to the rural areas in all communities, not only those in Cortland County, is long overdue, said Garry VanGorder, the executive director of the Cortland County Business Development Corp.

“Aside from the positive impact it would have on the quality of life, it is especially relevant these days as the pandemic continues to drive ‘work from home’ policies and as children continue to face the prospects of remote learning,” VanGorder said. “Heightened focus on rural broadband is very encouraging.”

PUSHING FORWARD

The county’s Agriculture, Planning and Environment Committee is leading the broadband access project, working with the county Planning Department, the development board and ECC Technologies consulting firm. Heider said he also expects the Area Agency on Aging to play a role in educating seniors.

When the county Legislature first discussed broadband a few years ago, Heider said he was concerned the large internet service providers would be too expensive to be financially accessible to every Cortland County resident.

In 2015, the state allocated $500 million to expand broadband through the New York Broadband Program, and in April, the Affordable Broadband Act became state law, requiring providers to offer a $15 monthly broadband plan to qualifying New Yorkers.

But $15-a-month plan is of no use to people who can’t get broadband to begin with.

“Access to folks who couldn’t normally afford to get on there is equally as important — but without the infrastructure, there’s no way to grant that economical access,” Heider said.

The Federal Communications Commission has awarded grants to broadband providers nationwide through the regional Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, including a few providers that operate in Cortland County.

“There are a number of small internet service companies that have really stepped up to try to fill the gaps in the rural portion of Central New York, and I expect some of those companies will also be participating in this project,” Bottar said.

IT’LL TAKE A WHILE It’ll be years before broadband is accessible for residents throughout Cortland County 400 miles is a lot of ground to cover, Bottar said.

Fiber optic cable will need to be wired along existing telephone poles where there are gaps in service. In areas lacking telephone poles, workers will need to bury the cables.

Bottar expects construction would — if funding is available — last through 2022, possibly into 2023.

For now, the next step is for the county to pick the best business plan — including which internet service providers they’ll work with.

“We will be working very closely with the Central New York Regional Planning and Development Board to get any funds available through grants — federal, state or even private grants — to get more broadband infrastructure into this county,” Heider said.