More than 50 local residents attended a town hall hosted by U.S. Rep. Anthony Brindisi, D-Utica, in the Sherburne-Earlville middle school gym Tuesday to discuss issues with rural broadband service.
“It’s important for me to communicate down in Washington what’s going on in upstate New York,” Brindisi said, adding that rural broadband is one of the “top issues” he hears about from constituents throughout his district.
“In the 21st century, it’s very difficult — I would say impossible — to operate without it,” he said.
He described his efforts to improve national infrastructure by introducing the issue of broadband to the conversation.
“If there’s one thing Democrats and Republicans can agree on, it’s infrastructure,” he said. “What better way to bring people together, especially in these divided times, than broadband?”
Brindisi said the first congressional bill he filed, the Transparency for Cable Customers Act, would require telecommunications companies to share data on the billing amounts and fees charges, the number of customers served and the internet speeds each company claims to provide.
“I want to bring more oversight to big cable behemoths,” he said.
Brindisi said he also introduced an amendment to the Save the Internet Act — a House initiative to reinstate net neutrality — that would require the government accounting office to report how broadband can more effectively expand to rural areas.
“The FCC admits it doesn’t have a great understanding of where the gaps in coverage are,” he said, referencing the census block standard for coverage reporting, which the industry describes as a “one-served, all-served” mentality. “I don’t want to wait for them to report it; I want to tell them where the gaps are.”
“It’s time we get this done, and I really appreciate what you’re doing,” said Bradd Vickers, president of the Chenango County Farm Bureau Association.
Bill Acee, mayor of the village of Sherburne, pointed out that wireless service is unregulated in New York state.
“It’s a bad deal for the public,” he said. “That’s something we might want to change in New York state.”
Eve Ann Shwartz, Hamilton town supervisor, described how Madison County is taking matters into its own hands by building out a broadband network to serve its residents.
“We’re convinced the private industry just isn’t going to do it,” she said.
Many in attendance shared their frustrations at the limited number of service providers in the area.
“Even if your service isn’t working properly, it’s that or nothing,” said Lebanon resident Sarah Goldstein, who attended the town hall with her 13-year-old son, Eli.
“How do you do your homework?” Brindisi asked, gesturing to Eli from the podium.
“Slowly,” Eli replied, explaining that many of his online assignments, which are only supposed to take 30 minutes, end up taking him three hours.
Brindisi addressed cellular coverage and cable service availability, discussing AT&T’s ongoing dispute with Nexstar Media Group, which had left thousands of DirecTV customers without most of the local channels they pay for.
“It’s a public safety issue,” he said, highlighting the importance of local news and weather broadcasts in the event of an emergency.
Some local residents pointed out the irony in DirecTV’s proposed solution — to stream shows using its online service — when the service is non-existent for many, while others shared the various creative methods they have employed to secure internet or cable service.
Matthew Jenne, a dairy farmer from the town of Sherburne, said he spent more than $1,000 on different equipment and has resorted to constructing a 40-foot tower on a hill on his property and running fiber optic cable directly to his house.
“In my area, I don’t have anything anywhere near high-speed broadband service,” Jenne said, noting that his top-tier internet plan averages speeds around 16 to 18 megabits per second.
Adam Carvell, a member of the Lebanon town board and chair of the highway and public safety committee, said he asks incoming residents “What do you want to give up?” in terms of phone service, internet speeds and cable channels.
He cited a recent report that 110 town residents were sharing a six-Mbps internet connection from Frontier.
“A lot of these people are right on the seam of where Spectrum, Frontier and HughesNet meet,” Carvell said. “Some of them live off the census blocks. They’ll never see broadband.”
FCC requirements dictate telecom companies offer a 25 Mbps minimum download speed, but in Frontier’s premium residential internet service plan only offers up to 24 Mbps, Brindisi said.
Carvell also criticized the telecom companies’ practice of raising rates for traditional copper wire internet service in order to “give the appearance of value” by lowering prices for fiber-optic service once the technology is introduced.
“I’d like to see broadband as a right, not a luxury,” Carvell said. “Telephones were a luxury once, too.”
“In this day and age, it very much is a right,” Brindisi agreed.
He attributed the increasing discrepancy in nationwide income equality to the rise of “corporate monopolies.”
“That means less choice for the consumer and worse service at a higher price,” Brindisi said. “That’s all creating more inequality.”
Sarah Eames, staff writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 607-441-7213. Follow her @DS_SarahE on Twitter.