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August 16, 2013

Officials meet on rural broadband access

By Bera Dunau Staff Writer
The Daily Star

---- — A forum on the state of rural broadband access, and what can be done to improve it, was hosted Wednesday by Rep. Chris Gibson, R-Kinderhook.

The symposium was held at SUNY Cobleskill in the Bouck Auditorium and featured representatives from the state government, federal government and industry. It is the fourth such forum Gibson has organized.

The forum was divided into presentations from federal officials, presentations from state officials and presentations from industry representatives. Questions from the audience were asked and answered throughout the presentations.

Each of the presenters talked about the efforts underway to increase access to broadband in rural areas, as well as the programs available to further this goal. Many, although not all, of the efforts and programs discussed involved government grants and loans available to telecommunications companies and local governments for expanding broadband access.

The symposium focused on Delaware, Schoharie, Chenango and Otsego counties and representatives from county governments were among those in the symposium’s audience.

Before these presentations began, Gibson, state Sen. James Seward (R-Milford) and Assemblyman Peter Lopez (R-Schoharie) gave short speeches. A representative for Assemblyman Clifford Crouch (R-Guilford) was also there.

Seward said: “Reliable, affordable, high speed broadband is critically important to us all on a number of fronts.”

Lopez favorably compared efforts to bring broadband to rural areas to the Rural Electrification Act.

“I’m a capitalist, I’m a conservative, I believe in our businesses,” Lopez said, “but there’s some instances where we recognize that the market itself can only deliver so much.”

Rob O’Hara, the Rural Utilities Service Telecom Program’s General Field Representative responsible for implementing and tracking all RUS funded loan and grant programs in Northern New York and New England, was one of the presenters from the federal government. He detailed the grants and loans available for broadband on the federal level. 

One of the most substantial of these programs is authorized through the 2008 U.S. Farm Bill. It is expected to be updated once a new Farm Bill is passed.

David Salway, the Director of the Broadband Program Management Office for the Office of the NYS Office for Technology, stressed the importance of both establishing universal access to broadband in New York and increasing broadband speeds where there is already broadband access.

Speaking about the 1.1 million people in New York without access to broadband, Salway said: “One million people is larger in population than Vermont, nine other states actually.”

In localizing this issue, Robert E. Gehrer, director of the State Broadband Mapping Program, said that 18 percent of Otsego County, 55 percent of Delaware County and 32 percent of Schoharie County are without broadband access by the state’s definition.

He also encouraged residents to go to broadbandmap.ny.gov to help make the broadband mapping process more accurate.

One of the main ways New York is looking to address the broadband access problem is through the Connect NY Program. The Connect NY Program consists of $25 million worth of funding for 18 projects to expand high-speed internet access in unserved and underserved areas.

These projects should bring broadband internet access to 153,000 households and 8,000 businesses.

Asked for his reaction to the event, Gibson said: “I think we’re having a productive session here. This provides the forums for our local leaders to understand the grant and the loan programs that are available ... so that they can put together these applications to build out capacity.”