EDITORIAL: Bipartisan for real

EARLY MONDAY AFTERNOON on the lawn of the West Ghent Community Center more than 20 people gathered to hear good news everybody there already knew. Second-term Congressman Antonio Delgado, a Democrat, has won approval in the House of Representatives for projects in his 19th District.

There were roughly equal numbers of elected officials and the press. The occasion was to highlight the agreement in the House to spend $829,594 in four towns in Columbia County: Austerlitz, Canaan, Ghent and New Lebanon. The goal is to fund installation of cable that can carry high-speed internet service to all 300 homes that don’t yet have access to what’s called broadband service.

That would be $2,765.31 per home, if divided equally, which it won’t be. Some homes will be harder to reach than others, which means it will cost more to reach them. But the funding is local news, because having access to broadband service means more than being able to buy stuff on Amazon or livestream movies. Its other uses include participating in virtual classrooms, tel-medicine, working from home and all sorts of connections we haven’t thought of yet.

Congressman Delgado spoke of broadband access as an “essential” need. Other speakers, Republicans and Democrats, echoed that description. But this funding is a small step in a bigger challenge, which used to be called the digital divide and now seems more often lumped together as part of what the pandemic showed us about the consequences of income disparity. It’s an essential service lots of people can’t afford.

And then there are the some other uncomfortable facts. Rep. Delgado mentioned that the technology for delivering broadband infrastructure has to be cutting edge or else it risks becoming obsolete as soon as the next wave of digital communications takes hold of our attention. We know there will be advancements. But what price will we pay if we leave rural communities stuck in the past once again when it comes to communicating with the rest of the world?

Another fact: The money for the 300 homes in four towns isn’t quite a certain thing yet. But Rep. Delgado has reason to be upbeat about the chances that funding for this district will be approved by the Senate. That’s because all members of House of Representatives and all senators have their own projects they want funded. Neither the House nor the Senate can cut the other’s funding without losing its own.

One more fact: Even if broadband cables are run past every one the 300 unserved homes in the 4 towns, the problem of access will not be remedied. There is no funding to pay for connecting houses to broadband nor is there a low-cost option or any financial assistance to offset the monthly cost for broadband service. There should be a sliding scale of broadband support for households eligible for other types of government assistance. There should be but there isn’t.

Last fact: On behalf of The Columbia Paper, a few months ago I wrote a letter to Rep. Delgado endorsing this proposal. I do not know that it had any effect on the project. I was a supporter of this project early on and I still support it.

Wiring our rural county is likely to remain a work in progress for some time based on how slowly broadband rolled out in parts of Chatham and Ghent a few years ago. But the process has to start somewhere. And the logical first step is to expand the existing broadband cable network.

Once broadband arrives in the four towns covered by this federal grant, the other fourteen towns in Columbia County might realize that they too need some help extending broadband access in their backyards. Now they have a model to guide them. They also have a congressman who can make things happen even in a pandemic.

This broadband project began when the energy of Ghent Councilwoman Patti Matheney and Connect Columbia co-chair Dave Berman intersected with the ability of Rep. Delgado to craft legislation that transcends Washington’s partisan muddles. The congressman has proved to be a resourceful lawmaker in these angry times. The county is fortunate he represents us in Congress.

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