The following post was written by Christina Sonsire, a candidate for Chemung County Legislature in the 7th District and administrator of the Chemung County Matters blog, and Tony Pucci, a candidate for Chemung County Legislature in the 1st District.
As we campaign in our respective districts, one of the concerns that residents express is the lack of access to affordable and reliable high-speed Internet access, particularly in the rural areas. It has become clear to us that what many in this country take for granted as an essential utility for enhancing our personal and professional lives remains unavailable for a significant number of residents in Chemung County.
What steps has Chemung County taken to ensure that all of our residents have broadband access? How effective have these steps been? What can be done to address the problem?
In November 2010, almost eight years ago, the Chemung County Legislature passed a resolution authorizing development of a “Regional Open Access Fiber Optic Backbone” in conjunction with Schuyler and Steuben counties.
Each county committed local taxpayer monies, along with a significant investment from Corning, Inc., to build out this foundational backbone that became known as the Southern Tier Network.
According to the STN website, “the network was built to support the needs of public safety, improve broadband access in rural areas, increase competition and the level of telecommunications services throughout the region….”
The network has now been completed; however, broadband access remains woefully inadequate in many areas.
On June 4, 2018, we attended a meeting of the Chemung County Legislature during which representatives of ECC Technologies presented their Chemung County Broadband Assessment, confirming that Internet access in Chemung County lags behind other urbanized counties in New York state. A link to ECC’s full report is found here.
Almost 1,300 local residents completed the survey. The results are troublesome to say the least. Over 80% responded that Internet access “is very or somewhat important to their ability to earn a living or quality of life.” A staggering 90% stated that having a choice in providers is important.
However, many of our neighbors have neither access nor choice. The ECC report shows that nearly three quarters of respondents would consider switching providers if they could; 38% are unable to purchase the speed of broadband service they need; 34% with someone in school report having trouble completing homework; and 15% have no access to the Internet at all.
We found one comment especially troubling. Lacking Internet access, one person wrote, “I’ve had to sit in the McDonald’s parking lot with my children in order for them to do their homework.” This is a situation that residents in rural communities must not accept as normal.
Of equal concern is the lack of download speed. New York State defines true broadband as a download speeds of 100Mpbs, but considers 25Mbps as reasonable broadband for rural areas. The ECC survey revealed that very few residential properties come close to meeting those standards, as shown below.
After nearly eight years of effort and financial investment, why hasn’t more progress been made to deliver high-speed broadband access to the rural areas of the county?
The Broadband Assessment combined with the many negative comments from Chemung County residents should have initiated town hall meetings by all legislators in each respective district to inform residents directly on this important issue.
From our view, being accountable to the residents of Chemung County means making sure that there is adequate follow-through on critical issues affecting quality of life, such as reasonable access to the Internet. Significant taxpayer dollars were used to build the network. If it is not working as promised, county lawmakers have a duty to let the community know what went wrong, and take steps to address it immediately.