The pandemic has worked like an X-ray, exposing a great many of the stresses and fractures in our society. And one of them was especially obvious in rural areas: the lack of broadband internet.
When the governor sent everyone home to work and study, it meant big changes for all New Yorkers. Students had to adapt to classes over Zoom; webinars replaced business meetings and conferences. But for too many in rural areas, none of that could actually happen at home, because the internet signal simply wasn’t strong enough.
And so people did what they had to do: teachers and students both often ended up sitting in school parking lots, a few feet from the classrooms they’d just vacated, using the high-speed Wi-Fi that leaked out through the doors. People tried to conduct their work from parking spots outside the local McDonald’s, which usually boasts a strong signal. I do a lot of public speaking, working on the climate crisis — I’m now a pro at perching my laptop on the steering wheel (but when the sun goes down and you’re using the dome light for illumination, it looks a lot someone telling ghost stories). Barely a third of rural Americans have access to real high-speed symmetrical internet, the kind that lets you videoconference, upload and download lesson plans and homework, and join in those Zoom cocktail hours we’ve been hearing about.
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New York, to its great credit, has set out to do something about this, offering grants that should, in theory, extend fiber-optic service to every corner of the Empire State. But thanks to a few twists of perverse public policy, it’s not moving nearly as fast as it could or should — indeed, there are a couple of provisions that may mean more remote areas never get the service they need.
The most obvious is a provision included in the state budget in 2019 that allows the Department of Transportation to charge a per foot fee for fiber-optic cable located along state highways. There’s no real need for this — it doesn’t cost the DOT anything to have fiber-optic cable running along existing poles through its right of way — and there is a great disadvantage: it makes it utterly uneconomic to reach certain destinations.
Kevin Lynch is director of operations for Slic Network Solutions, which is wiring much of the Adirondacks with fiber. His job is hard enough (among other things, there’s an almost pole-by-pole negotiation with the utilities for access to the existing infrastructure). But, as he explains, in some cases that DOT fee makes their work utterly impossible.
Consider, for instance, an area in Louisville, west of Massena in St. Lawrence County. They want to build a 2-mile extension along state Route 37, to reach a marina along the St. Lawrence River — it would pass 13 homes, which would get high-speed internet as a result, and the marina, a useful part of the local economy, would be able to have the service that any going business now requires. The town received a $20,000 grant from the St. Lawrence River Redevelopment Authority for the work, which is a good acknowledgement that it would make sense for the local community.
But, because of the DOT “right of way occupancy fee” of $2,689 for the 2 miles — a sum that would have to be paid each and every year — Lynch says the service “can’t be operated at even close to a break-even fee.” Again, it’s not that this cable strung from poles would actually cost the Department of Transportation anything. They’re just collecting some money.
Perhaps this is a necessary tax in more populated parts of the state, where a similar line might pass 1,300 homes — maybe they wouldn’t notice the pennies a year. But in rural areas it simply makes this work impossible, thus defeating the noble intent of the governor and the Legislature to provide broadband. That would have been aggravating as heck six months ago. But in the world reshaped by coronavirus, it’s completely inexcusable.
Bill McKibben, who lives in Johnsburg, is an author and environmentalist who in 2014 was awarded the Right Livelihood Prize, sometimes called the ‘alternative Nobel.’ His 1989 book The End of Nature is regarded as the first book for a general audience about climate change, and has appeared in 24 languages; he’s gone on to write a dozen more books. He is a founder of 350.org, the first planet-wide, grassroots climate change movement, which has organized 20,000 rallies around the world in every country save North Korea, spearheaded the resistance to the Keystone Pipeline and launched the fast-growing fossil fuel divestment movement.