EDITORIAL: The truth still matters

TWO YEARS AGO this week Governor Andrew Cuomo dropped in at the Hudson Area Library to announce his “Broadband for All” initiative. The bottom line was $2.5 million for Columbia County and $500 million statewide to make broadband internet service available to all New Yorkers, especially those of us who live in rural areas.

The deadline for this upgrade was two years, 2018. An election year. The promise remains unfulfilled though there has been improvement. Instead, last week saw another announcement from state government. Charter Communications, one of the largest internet service providers in the state, was accused by the state Public Service Commission of lying about how much progress it had made toward wiring rural areas.

Instead of a scolding or a slap-on-the-wrist fine, the PSC yanked its approval of Charter’s merger with another large cable TV and internet company, Time Warner Cable. The PSC regulators said, in effect, that Charter, which brands itself as Spectrum here, no longer has the right to its multi-billion merger with Time Warner. The PSC gave Charter 60 days to come up with a plan to transfer its former Time Warner operations to some new buyer.

This sounds like a step backwards. But as you may have noticed, it’s complicated.

The merger has produced activity in many parts of the county over the last 12 months. In Ghent and Chatham, for instance, whole fleets of vehicles have halted traffic while running cable on every available utility pole.

But time after time shortly after the first trucks departed a second convoy came and remove the first cable and then a third wave redid whatever the first two got wrong. This is a good formula for full employment, if that’s your only goal. It’s not a recipe for progress.

These days you can spot evidence of this helter skelter approach. The company’s unrealistic promises to deliver broadband caused lumps of abandoned cable to litter local roadsides. In the Village of Chatham derelict strands of cable drooped from the overhead wires, dangling low enough to hit a pedestrian in the face. The evidence of sloppiness was a testament to Charter/Spectrum’s haste and the absence of competent management.

The PSC wanted Charter to be able to offer broadband connections to 145,000 rural customers in exchange for approval of the merger. It was a laudable goal, but the timeframe was not realistic. A company with the resources of Charter could have staffed up with more skilled people and better planning if the end result was worth it. But rural areas aren’t so profitable and spending enough money to get the job done right was not a good investment. Lying was cheaper, or so it seemed.

Every few months, Charter has had to report its progress in terms of homes and businesses that could be served in rural areas. Charter said it was exceeding its goals. Except that there was a difference of opinion about what’s rural and what’s not. Charter counted homes in New York City as rural. Perhaps they were thinking about the Bronx Zoo? There were also more than 4,000 rural homes that could be served in Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Albany, Mt. Vernon and Schenectady. Really.

This was not a clerical area. It was a deliberate attempt to deceive state regulators at the PSC, whose job is to look out for the public interest. If the problem had involved an inability by the company to meet performance standards, then the burden would be on the PSC to set more realistic standards. But why reward Charter, a multi-billion-dollar corporation company with a near monopoly, for its devious behavior?

This is an election year and the PSC decision does reaffirm the governor’s support for broadband access, when he’s bound to be challenged on that topic. But the problem will linger long after the ballots have been counted this year and in 2020.

This merger promised to give the PSC the leverage to force a company to do good things for the public. It didn’t work out that way. But we need broadband in this rural county and with state government strapped and the federal government hostile to the type of spending that built our national infrastructure, it seems likely that private investment will be the only way to get it.

The PSC has made a good start by holding Charter/Spectrum accountable for its cynical disregard of promises made. That doesn’t answer the question of how rural Columbia County will get broadband service but for the moment it feels pretty good.

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