EDITORIAL: News from the broadband front

“IS CP EVEN COVERING THIS?” We got that message a few days ago on Facebook. “CP” is The Columbia Paper and the “this” in this case is more than $8 million in state grants to three companies to connect more than 3,100 homes and businesses in the county to broadband internet service.

Our Facebook friend suggests we missed some big news. He could be right, although this is the third phase of a $500-million statewide funding initiative first announced by Governor Cuomo in Hudson in August 2016. But it is newsworthy when a politician in high office follows through on his commitment to improve local infrastructure.

We also have to consider the economics of local news. We could rush to post all our news stories, listings and other information online before they show up in newsprint. In a few cases we do cover breaking news that way. The most recent example was the verdict in a high-profile murder trial. But if we adopted digital media as our primary way to bring local news to Columbia County, we’d be out of business within about three weeks, and that’s the best-case scenario. Print news advertising pays the bills.

News of this latest round of state broadband funding arrived here well past the deadline for our last issue. We could have asked the print room crew at the Berkshire Eagle, where The Columbia Paper is printed, to “Stop the Presses!” and toss the papers that didn’t have the broadband grant announcement into the recycle bin.

Talk about wasting money… that’s a great way to get poor fast. That’s especially true since the U.S. Commerce Department recently imposed a nearly 10% tariff on newsprint from Canada. The Eagle has already passed along a share of its higher newsprint paper costs to us because, if you’re reading this in the newspaper, not online, the paper you’re holding was made with trees from Canada.

But it’s likely we would have delayed publication of the release even if it had reached us before the deadline. Despite funding from the state and the efforts of local groups like Connect Columbia (www.facebook.com/ConnectColumbiaCountyNY/ ), the Columbia Economic Development Corporation (CEDC) and companies like Gtel in the Germantown area, too much of this county doesn’t have access to a service essential for businesses and lots of other 21st century activities, including health, education, entertainment and good government, to name just a few.

Over the last few months small convoys of bucket trucks have been stringing cable along Route 66 in Ghent within sight of our office. The trucks bear various company logos, most with the word “Broadband” in the name. Some said “Fairpoint.” No sooner had one company moved on to a new location than a crew from a different company showed up and began stringing its cable or maybe removing the cable already installed. Now, coils of thick black cable hang from utility poles and bucket trucks are hibernating. It is not reassuring.

Neither is the map from a CEDC project that shows large areas of the western side of the county with no broadband at all. A company formerly known as Charter and now rebranded as Spectrum, promised to connect Chatham, Ghent, Austerlitz and Canaan to high speed internet service as part of an agreement with the state Public Service Commission. Maybe those coiled wires on the poles will blossom into broadband connections in the spring, but don’t count on it.

Spectrum was not one of the companies receiving a state grant in this latest round of funding. Since the company paid a fine last year of $13 million to the PSC for failing to live up to its promises for service, it would have been a stretch if it had received taxpayer support. But Spectrum does continue to market its no-show broadband service.

This week I called Spectrum, identified myself and asked for broadband service at our office. The young woman I spoke with was certain Spectrum offered it in Ghent. I asked for a supervisor. He also insisted that Spectrum Broadband was available until I pressed him to double check. He paused. “I’m digging in a bit deeper,” he said. Another pause. “For Ghent, nothin’,” he said. Broadband? “Not shown.” No surprise there.

To our Facebook friend I can say only that we have covered this broadband story. You can look it up on our website. Broadband probably will come to many rural areas of Columbia County, but announcements from the state are only part of the story.

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