EDITORIAL: They irrigate digital desert

WELL, THEY TRIED. The citizens group Connect Columbia has bird-dogged cable TV and phone companies in an effort to make high-speed internet access available throughout the county. There has been progress. But internet providers, as the companies are called, can be a slippery bunch.

County residents who already have high-speed service might be surprised how many people in the county don’t. You can see it on maps. Communities east of the Taconic State Parkway and some other spots look like digital deserts, which leaves the county with some of the poorest connectivity in the state. This is not news, but a recent decision by the state Public Service Commission (PSC) giving a second chance to one of the biggest and slipperiest of the providers is worth noting.

The story begins four years ago when Charter Communications requested approval to swallow a major competitor, Time Warner Cable and its brand name, Spectrum. The PSC agreed to the merger but only if Charter/Spectrum agreed to make high speed internet access available to 145,000 homes and businesses in Upstate New York communities where the service was unavailable. Sure, sure, said Charter/Spectrum. Piece of cake.

A couple of years later the PSC discovered that Charter/Spectrum was reporting its progress meeting that 145,000 target by claiming customers in the Bronx as part of its upstate service. You might believe the Bronx is “upstate” if you live in Brooklyn, but the PSC wasn’t amused. It slammed Charter/Spectrum by withdrawing permission for the multi-billion-dollar Charter/Spectrum merger. That decision got a lot of attention. Charter filed suit against the state. The fleet of Spectrum vans and bucket-trucks clogging county roads disappeared almost overnight.

It felt at the time as if, finally, the state had faced down a big company that wasn’t holding up its side of a bargain with the public. It proved there was a price to pay for failing to bring internet access—now an essential service–to the most rural parts of Columbia and other rural counties. Then the state blinked. It reversed course and reopened negotiations with Charter/Spectrum for a settlement agreement.

In April of this year the PSC and Charter/Spectrum agreed on a settlement. In May the PSC said public comment on the deal had to be submitted by the first week in July. Comments in a process like this are not the “You’re greedy liars” vs. “Suck it up, woodchucks” variety. To be effective these comments must use closely reasoned legal arguments based on facts already in the record, and relevant regulations.

Connect Columbia Co-Chairs David Berman and Patti Matheney submitted 16 pages of comments by July 5. A handful of other groups also filed comments, including the Town of Ancram. On July 11, the PSC approved the settlement, apparently without changes.

The new settlement requires Charter/Spectrum to make service available to… 145,000 Upstate addresses, giving the company credit for already passing 65,000 of the addresses. That leaves 80,000 to go by the September 30, 2021 deadline. That’s a lot more residences and businesses than the total number of potential internet customers in all of Columbia County. But Charter/Spectrum has franchises around the state and nobody knows exactly what will get done where.

This gets to the heart of the problem raised by Connect Columbia. The group asked that the PSC “Deny Charter any confidentiality for its buildout plans and completion reports…” so that communities will know what Charter/Spectrum is doing. That would be a very effective way of keeping track of the company and avoiding its flimflam moves like claiming New York City customers as living “upstate.”

But the PSC dismissed that with a sniff, saying in the commission’s final order: “Charter is required to comply with the Agreement and any audits thereunder.” That was enough, said the PSC, to address Connect Columbia’s concerns.

Really? Does the PSC mean that Charter wasn’t “required to comply” with its previous agreement? By sidestepping Connect Columbia’s recommendation, the PSC missed an opportunity to enlist the help of local government in monitoring the company’s performance. Judging from Charter/Spectrum’s past behavior, the commission could use a hand.

A couple of years from now maybe none of this will matter. By then we may be clamoring for the latest “5G” wireless network, where the only cable you need is the one to charge your mobile device. We might feel bad for the folks stuck with old-fashioned high speed internet. But we’ll still need thoughtful hard-working neighbors like the members of Connect Columbia to help us get what we need.

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