GREENPORT—On Friday, October 4, Congressman Antonio Delgado (D-19th) convened a Congressional Field Hearing with Federal Communications Commissioner Geoffrey Starks at Columbia-Greene Community College (C-GCC). The hearing was titled, “Closing the Digital Divide: Connecting Rural Americans to Reliable Internet Service” and focused on the need to expand rural broadband access and affordability in upstate New York.
The hearing featured testimony from two members of the Columbia County community: David Berman, co-chair of Columbia Connect, and Dr. Cliff Belden, Chief Medical Officer at Columbia Memorial Health. Also testifying on Friday were Tim Johnson, CEO of Otsego Electric Cooperative in Edmeston; Shannon Hayes, owner of the Sap Bush Hollow Farm Store and Café in West Fulton; Jason Miller, general manager of Delhi Telephone Company in Delhi; and Superintendent Brian Dunn from the Middleburgh Central School District.
They all talked about the different issues that affect their rural communities and, for many, how slow internet access speeds affect the businesses they run.
C-GCC Vice President and Dean of Academic Affairs George Timmons welcomed the crowd in the college’s Arts Center Theater, pointing out that this was the first congressional field hearing the college had ever hosted. Local officials, including Assemblymember Didi Barrett (D-106th) were in the audience. Patrick Hernandez’s students from the Catskill school district were there live streaming the hearing.
Congressman Delgado and Commissioner Starks gave opening remarks. Mr. Delgado talked about the large size of the district he serves, pointing out that it is the “eighth most rural district in the country.” He said that when it comes to access to broadband, “rural communities aren’t getting what they ought to be getting.” He said access to the internet is needed for small businesses, schools and medical providers.
Commissioner Starks said there would be $20 billion in grant money next year for rural digital broadband. But he said that mapping and good data are important for expanding service. He also said that states need to encourage not limit municipal broadband.
After Mr. Starks spoke, Mr. Delgado started the hearing saying, “I want to open with an observation. As you will notice, there is no [cell phone] service in this auditorium. This is unfortunately the rule not the exception here in the twin counties, and all across upstate and New York’s 19th Congressional District. Small businesses, families, schools and health care providers in upstate suffer daily from lack of consistent access to high-speed broadband services. This is due in large part to lack of investment in broadband infrastructure. Broadband services should not be treated as a luxury but as a basic utility and essential for our communities.”
The congressman pointed out that 26% of rural residents lack access to high speed internet compared to 1.7% of people living in urban areas. Mr. Delgado said we need to close the “digital divide.”
Rep. Delgado conducted the hearing, giving each person 5 minutes to speak.
During his testimony, Mr. Berman, who lives in Ghent and is co-chair of Columbia Connect, said, “Let me define true broadband in 2019 terms—a minimum of a symmetrical 100 Mbits/sec growing to a symmetrical 1 gigabit within five years. The commission’s definition is considerably out-of-date and needs to be upgraded immediately. Many of our international competitors are already at the gigabit level.”
He talked about how using census blocks to define coverage didn’t make sense any more adding that there should be state and local requirements to get internet access to every address. “Every address that gets electricity should get broadband,” he said.
Dr. Belden said that clinics, patients and doctors need access to reliable internet service. He said that CMH is trying to do more remote monitoring of patients but the hospital must sometime pay for a wireless service plan to send patients home with a monitoring device because the patient might not have reliable internet service at home. He said having access to remote monitoring would mean lower rates of patients readmitted to the hospital. He said people who choose to live in a rural community should have access to the same tools for medical services as other people in the country.
Ms. Hayes, a small business owner in Schoharie, talked about bringing people back to her small community who left after high school and college and having access to internet for small businesses. Superintendent Dunn talked about have access to the internet not just in schools but in “all homes.” Electric company CEO Johnson talked about federal tax policy changes that would mean a loss of grant money in his industry. Mr. Miller, from Delhi Telephone Company, discussed the importance of addressing flawed broadband mapping.
During Congressman Delgado’s questions of the panel, there was discussion about the cost of getting broadband to rural areas. Mr. Berman talked about the issue of who owns the to poles to bring internet cables to rural areas and the costs to bring service to sparsely populated areas. He also said that internet companies do not want to reveal where they are installing broadband. “Nobody wants to tell you where they are going,” he said.
Mr. Delgado talked about public/private partnerships in getting access to rural areas, but also understanding where those partnerships won’t work and more public funds are needed.
After about two hours, the hearing was closed.
The video recording of the hearing is available on YouTube at Catskill News–Patrick Hernandez Live Stream.
To contact reporter Emilia Teasdale email