Gillibrand announces new broadband bill

Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, Fonda-Fultonville Central School District Board of Education President Matt Sullivan and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand listen in as Fulton County Center for Regional Growth President Ronald Peters speaks to local officials and members of the media at a press conference at Fonda-Fultonville Elementary School on Thursday to speak with students. (The Leader-Herald/Kerry Minor)

FONDA — Further reaching internet connections could be coming rural areas in Fulton and Montgomery counties thanks to a new bill introduced in the senate.

On Thursday, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand announced at a press conference at Fonda-Fultonville Elementary that a bill has been introduced in the senate that would see grant funding available for rural broadband projects in high-need areas.

The Broadband Connections for Rural Opportunities Program Act was introduced by Gillibrand and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-WV. She said both parties recognize how important high-speed internet access is to both families and businesses.

“It is one of the most important economic engines this region needs to continue to grow and provide the kind of economy our families need,” she said.

According to Gillibrand, the act would offer grants for projects that bring high-speed broadband to rural communities.

According to information from the Senator’s office, grants of up to 50 percent of a project’s cost would be awarded in combination with the current loan funding available through the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service. The coverage amount would increase to 75 percent for remote, high-need areas. In addition, the bill would also double the authorizing funding for rural utilities services programs to $50 million per fiscal year. Special attention would be given to partnerships, including initiatives that work with anchor institutions like health centers, libraries and educational entities.

“Reliable, fast internet service isn’t a luxury anymore, it’s actually a necessity,” Gillibrand said.

Gillibrand said a big problem with high-speed internet in rural areas is there is just not the infrastructure to support it. So even if a family wants and can afford internet, they may not be able to get it because there isn’t access in their area.

“There are no cables or towers in some of the harder to reach areas of our state,” Gillibrand said. “Imagine not having access to power, or a road or water. Those are fundamental things we decided as a country every family had a right to have access to. And I do believe that is how we should be thinking about internet access. It should be a right. It should be something we all have access to.”

For business

Gillibrand said businesses in the Fulton-Montgomery area need all the tools and resources available to compete throughout the state, with other states and the world.

“We can build amazing products, we can offer amazing services, but if we can’t sell them beyond our backyard then it’s not good enough,” she said

Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara said internet connectivity is not only an issue in the Fulton-Montgomery area, but in communities across the U.S.

“This legislation could help schools just like Fonda-Fultonville. It could help communities just like ours, and the rural communities in Montgomery County that still don’t have access to high-speed internet,” he said.

Santabarbara said almost half the area is lacking access to the state’s minimum speed of 6.5 megabits per second. He said access to download speeds of 100 megabits per second, which he states is regarded by economic experts as the minimum needed for economic growth, is non-existent.

“This inability to access broadband limits job creation, restricts teaching opportunities. It detracts from quality of life [by not] having internet at home,” Gillibrand said.

Fulton County Center for Regional Growth President and CEO Ronald Peters said access to high-speed internet is a vital need for businesses.

“Without access to high speed, rural communities lose a competitive edge,” Peters said.

He said that while rural communities can offer a better cost of living, lesser cost of development and lower land costs, it’s growth can be hindered by its lack of broadband services.

“It is a critical need. We see it everyday with our companies that are looking to expand in our rural areas,” Peters said.

Peters said that companies that can’t be competitive due to connectivity issues, may look to go somewhere else.

For education

Gillibrand said students must have access to high speed internet now a days to do their homework.

“That’s wrong and we should be able to accommodate and meet the needs of our young people,” she said. “Our students need to study better. They need to be able to conduct better research when they are writing reports or working on projects. They need to develop the skills they will end up using when they graduate and enter the workforce,” Gillibrand said.

Gillibrand said that recent numbers show about 11 percent of FFCS students in grades third through 12th do not have access to high-speed internet.

“This number may sound low, it might look good enough, but in a study conducted by the school district, they found that if just one student in a class doesn’t have access at home, it will force the teachers to change how they use technology in the classroom,” she said. “In other words, every student loses out when just one of their classmates don’t have internet access at home.”

Gillibrand said this can mean students could be less prepared when they graduate to take on good paying jobs in the future where good computer skills are a requirement.

FFCS Board of Education President Matt Sullivan said the district feels the expansion of broadband services is critical. He said Fonda-Fultonville has made it a priority over the past several years to integrate technology into classrooms.

Sullivan said the district does what it can to ensure students have access, from opening up computer labs to creating WiFi hotspots and testing buses that carry WiFi.

“These initiatives however, offer fewer benefits than dedicated broadband in our rural areas,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan said these measures require resources that could be spend elsewhere in the district. He said this legislation could help improve academic offerings and standards.

Kerry Minor can be reached at kminor@leaderherald.com.

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