The satellite internet at Sara and Brett Budde’s Sullivan County farm is so limited and unreliable that remote schooling really wasn’t possible for their two young kids when the pandemic hit this spring.
That was supposed to change in September when Spectrum, the cable company, planned to install broadband wiring in their part of Fallsburg, about 10 miles east of Monticello. But told now that the work is delayed and may be pushed to January, the couple faces the start of school in a few weeks with a similar bind: inadequate internet for schooling their kids will have to do partly online.
“We’ve debated some form of home-schooling,” Sara Budde said, unsure how they will solve a quandary that has spilled into a second school year.
Despite some gains in broadband access around New York, high-speed internet service remains frustratingly out of reach for homes and businesses In rural pockets of the Hudson Valley and Catskills, at a time when the coronavirus has made it more vital than ever for school, work and health care.
The gravity of that digital divide became more glaring on Friday when school districts released reopening plans for September that combine in-person instruction with large stretches of time when students and staff work from home. In Sullivan County, where every district has families who lack high-speed internet or can’t afford it, administrators are scrambling for solutions to ensure those children don’t lose out on learning.
Sullivan West School District polled every household this summer and found that 10 percent to 15 percent of its roughly 1,000 students lacked broadband or had only inconsistent service. Superintendent Stephen Walker told the Times Herald-Record last week those children will be given a priority for in-person instruction in the coming school year, allowing them to be in school as often possible.
Tri-Valley, a district of similar size to the north, has a comparable coverage gap, with about 15 percent of students cut off from reliable, high-speed service. Administrators are looking into buying internet hot spots for those students’ homes – to be used solely for school work on Google Chromebooks the district provides – and setting up satellite WiFi locations for families that also lack cell service at their homes.
“These kids are at a very serious disadvantage compared to their peers in urban districts in terms of connectivity,” Superintendent Mike Williams said.
Like Sullivan West, Tri-Valley also plans to maximize in-school instruction for those kids, which will mean four days per week if their parents are comfortable with that. Williams said children without internet were able to get by on work packets in the spring because they already knew their teachers and classes. But that would be harder to do this fall.
“These kids will be working with teachers they don’t know,” he said.
Elected officials representing the area already had been pushing for extended broadband service well before the pandemic arrived in March and upped the ante. Workers now needed it to do their jobs from home. Students and teachers needed it for video classes and conferences. Patients needed it to see their doctors.
Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther, a Forestburgh Democrat who represents most of Sullivan County and part of Orange, said her office fields multiple complaints from constituents each day about inadequate broadband service, a problem she has labored to address for the last several years.
“It’s an absolute horror show,” Gunther said.
She views the internet service gaps as discriminatory, creating classes of haves and have-nots that put have-not students in peril this fall. She said she and her aides speak “constantly” with Spectrum representatives about extending broadband lines to specific areas. The company has been responsive, Gunther said, although she said she wished Gov. Andrew Cuomo would focus on the problem to bring a more sweeping solution.
“It’s a bigger issue than the one-by-one,” Gunther said, referring to the piecemeal accommodations she helps secure for constituents. “It has to be taken as a whole.”
State Sen. Jen Metzger, a Rosendale Democrat whose district includes all of Sullivan and parts of Ulster, Orange and Delaware, said shaky and non-existent broadband service is “one of the biggest complaints I hear from constituents,” and one of her top priorities since she took office last year.
“This pandemic has really magnified tremendously the disadvantages of not having access to broadband,” she said.
One challenge in solving the problem is defining it with precision. Both Gunther and Rep. Antonio Delgado, the congressman representing Sullivan and Ulster counties, have criticized the practice of using census blocks to map broadband coverage areas, which they say greatly understates the problem by counting entire blocks as served if a single home has broadband access.
A 2018 federal report using that faulty measure and 2016 data indicated that 2,789 Sullivan County residents had no access to high-speed internet service. The same applied to 5,925 people in Ulster County and 1,140 in Orange County, according to that study by the Federal Communications Commission.
But a broadband coverage map that Sullivan County made in 2015 suggested a more extensive problem, showing road squiggles throughout the county with no service and counting 4,507 homes and businesses that lacked hard-wired broadband. That figure consisted largely of 3,609 single-family homes, which means a much larger number of residents without service.
Metzger, one of five senators serving on a rural resources commission, points out the problem in rural areas is not only access but the widely varying speeds with which broadband is delivered, since some forms are too slow to run video programs such as Zoom that are needed for classroom discussions and work meetings.
She sponsored a bill that both the Senate and Assembly passed last month that would require the state Public Service Commission to study the accessibility, reliability and affordability of broadband service in New York and issue a report, after holding public hearings in at least four parts of the state. The bill’s summary cited a study estimating that 8.7 million New Yorkers don’t have high-speed internet access, a service it said was critical for revitalizing rural areas.
The bill, approved with near unanimity, has yet to be sent to Cuomo to sign or veto.
A press release touting the passage of Metzter’s bill quoted Sullivan County resident Gordon Robinson, who said his internet service was too slow and shaky for the management consulting practice he runs from his home in Callicoon.
“When I have important meetings I have to drive into New York City to get a dependable connection,” Robinson said. “This translates to a limit on how much business I can conduct, which hits my bottom line in a very direct way, as do my travel costs and the costs of maintaining two offices.”
Delgado, a Rhinebeck Democrat who serves on the 17-member House Rural Broadband Task Force, has sponsored bills to require more accurate broadband mapping, raise speed standards and allocate $100 billion to expand access and help low-income households pay for it. He announced last month that a giant spending bill the House had just passed included $1 billion for broadband access.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the necessity of broadband, from homeschooling, to supporting our small businesses, to effectuating telemedicine,” Delgado said in a statement in June. “For far too long, our rural communities have been held back by a lack of access to this essential utility in the 21st century, and there is simply no excuse.”
The only internet option for now for Sara and Brett Budde in the Mountain Dale area of Fallsburg is their satellite service, which costs $160 a month, has limited data and sometimes goes on and off. Their business, Majestic Farm, has a website to display and sell its organic apples and meats, but updating that site can be difficult because of the data limit. And forget about streaming videos.
Sara Budde says she has been making calls for a few years to get hard-wired service, and initially was told by Spectrum that its build-out would reach her area by September. Then she was told that the pandemic had delayed that work and that she “possibly” may have service by January.
Heidi Vandenbrouck, a spokeswoman for Spectrum’s parent, Charter, said by email that the company plans to start broadband construction in the Buddes’ area “later this year,” but couldn’t give a more specific time. She said the work couldn’t start until Charter had gotten permission to use the utility poles that will support its broadband wires.
The Public Service Commission required Charter in 2016 to extend broadband access to 145,000 more homes and businesses in New York as a condition of its merger with Time Warner Cable. Vandenbrouck said Charter has finished 109,100 locations and is almost 10,000 sites ahead of schedule. The work must be done by Sept. 30, 2021.
In the meantime, Sullivan County is poised to start a broadband expansion of its own with an ambitious goal: countywide access to affordable, high-speed internet by the end of 2023.
Much of that strategy would rely on the 10 radio towers Sullivan uses for emergency communications. For a $200,000 pilot project, the county soon will mount antennas on the tower at its new jail in Monticello to beam wireless internet service to the surrounding area, which is expected to be available by the end of the year. Residents and businesses could subscribe though a local development corporation the county has set up as an internet provider.
One challenge is Sullivan’s rugged, wooded terrain, which could limit the range of the Monticello tower to a three-mile radius by a conservative estimate, said Lorne Green, the county’s commissioner of information technology services. But the county is studying ways to reach any places the 10 towers can’t cover.
Equipping all towers could cost the county nearly $3 million, an expense the county will seek to defray with grants. Green said the project was a legislative priority, seen as a “transformational” advance that could spur population growth and business development that Sullivan’s leaders have long sought.
“The Legislature is looking at ways to grow,” he said.
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