EDITORIAL: How slow is my county?

A GROUP OF COUNTY residents called Connect Columbia met at Ghent Town Hall this week to plan for something that, if successful, could put this newspaper out of business.

Trouble is, if they aren’t successful, their failure promises to doom this enterprise.

Uh oh.

Connect Columbia, a Community Action Network, has set its mission as “bringing affordable broadband to All corners of Columbia County.” If you don’t know what broadband is or don’t care, Congratulations. You are living proof that Columbia is one of two counties statewide with the worst access to broadband service.

There are historical and technical explanations why most of us live inside the rim of a communications black hole when it comes to 21st century communications. But regardless of how we got here, we’d better dig ourselves out quickly or we’ll be courting fewer benefits from modern health services, lower quality after-school education for our kids, fewer new businesses that pay good wages, downward pressure on the value of our homes and crummy entertainment options, too.

The meeting of Columbia Connect Tuesday, the group’s second gathering, drew about 20 people, all with different perspectives on what’s needed to improve the delivery of digital service to even our most rural communities. The problems fall into three general categories, like the basic ingredients of modern life: politics, money and technology.

Patti Matheney, a member of the Ghent Town Board, chaired the session and said flat out: “This is not a partisan issue.” Surprisingly, that’s true. The county is divided between digital haves and have-nots in ways that don’t respect party affiliation or social status. Congressman Chris Gibson (R-19th) has brought officeholders, bureaucrats and activists together to address the problem. Governor Cuomo has put money in the budget for greater broadband access and state officials meet at Columbia-Greene Community College next week. And all that political power won’t be enough, by itself, to solve the county’s access deficit.

Here’s just some of what Connect Columbia is up against: the copper wires that supply Internet access to most homes and businesses can’t handle all the data we use at the speed we want. So we sit and wait… and wait. There are high capacity fiber cables in some areas, but the companies that own them say they can’t make a profit from them in rural areas–there aren’t enough customers. There are ways to transmit digital signals through the atmosphere, but they have drawbacks too.

Any plan to cover the whole county is likely to involve a “patchwork” of technologies, suppliers and funding sources. Piecing it all together will take time and money just figuring out what might work. We’re lucky that Connect Columbia wants to give it a try.

One approach proposed (though not endorsed) at the meeting was to design and operate some small over-the-air broadband connections for rural areas. This might force the issue by delivering service to most difficult to reach residents. It might also run afoul of federal regulations.

But there’s precedent for this approach. Back in the early 1950s, ranchers in the Rocky Mountains couldn’t get TV reception from cities like Denver. There was no cable TV then, so the ranchers took matters into their own hands and built small, inexpensive devices that re-broadcast the TV signals into remote valleys.

The Federal Communications Commission took a dim view of this, and things got so testy that the governor of Colorado at the time threatened to have state police arrest any federal agent who interfered with the ranchers’ little TV transmitters. After that the feds backed off and legalized the little transmitters. You think Governor Cuomo would stare down the FCC on behalf rural broadband service in Columbia County?

Broadband is not the ultimate communications service. Something new will make it obsolete. But if the county doesn’t upgrade now, it will be much harder for us to adapt to the next big idea.

As for this newspaper, broadband access means more readers will migrate to digital news. We already compete in the digital world by offering information people want. The alternative–living with slow, unstable Internet access–is a much more immediate threat to this publication and the county that supports us.

Connect Columbia has the enthusiasm, talent and openness that give this group a real chance of success. They should keep the ranchers in mind. Embrace unorthodox solutions. Get in the face of those in the way. Remind your supporters of the power of the vote. This can happen.

To learn more go to connectcolumbiacounty.com.

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