Westerlo one step closer to $1.6M broadband grant — but nothing’s firmed up yet

The Enterprise — Noah Zweifel
Congressman Paul Tonko and members of the Westerlo community look at maps that show where in the town fiber cables are already installed, and where they’re still needed.

WESTERLO — The United States House of Representatives has just passed a version of the federal budget that includes more than $1.6 million for Westerlo as part of a push for broadband in the town, facilitated by Congressman Paul Tonko, according to a press release from his office.

For the money to be actualized, the budget will need to pass through the Senate — typically a harder battle given the imbalance between party representation in the two chambers, with Democrats holding only a technical majority in the latter. 

In June, Tonko visited with Westerlo officials and key residents to hear about the difficulties they’ve had trying to be productive in modern society while managing with poor or non-existent broadband service at home or work. 

At the time, Tonko was trying to gather information so that he could bring it to the House Committee on Appropriations, which had allowed each representative to request funding for up to 10 projects within their districts. 

Tonko has requested approximately $14,447,500 in federal funding for 10 projects, which include Westerlo’s broadband upgrades, a Homeless Improvement Program for the Albany County Sheriff’s Office, and better research equipment for the University at Albany. 

Tonko has said that, if Westerlo receives the $1,687,500 he requested on the town’s behalf, at least 900 more households, farms, and businesses would be able to tap into new fiber-optic cables, mitigating the impact of poor internet service in the town. 

Westerlo’s recently-completed comprehensive plan revealed that only 39 percent of survey respondents said they had reliable access to high-speed internet. Meanwhile, 23 percent had no internet access, 16 percent were unhappy with their speeds, and 19 percent found rates too expensive. 

Westerlo resident Leonard Laub, a technologist and member of the town’s broadband committee, explained to Tonko in June that the scope of Westerlo’s project is fixed on expanding the broadband network, which would be the most substantial component of getting residents fully connected. 

“At this point, in the scope of this grant application, we’re just looking to run fiber everywhere,” Laub explained to Tonko during the roundtable discussion. “The connections from the fiber running down the road to the individual houses or businesses are not part of this, nor is any subsidy to anybody’s activity.”

Laub, who was instrumental in putting together the grant proposal, reiterated that point to The Enterprise this week when discussing the news of the budget’s progress, hoping to drive home the fact that newly installed fiber-optic cables won’t automatically provide residences access to the internet: Lines will still need to be drawn from these fiber optic cables to people’s homes and businesses. 

Laub said that the town is negotiating with an internet service provider about ways to tackle that last step. 

“It is great that this is progressing,” Laub told The Enterprise this week. “But it’s a fat-lady-singing type of situation. We’re dealing with the federal government here. When 100 percent of the money we’ve asked for is available to us, that’ll be great news, but that has not happened yet. Until [it does], we probably can’t do a hell of a lot.”

Laub said that he was concerned that buzz around any good news about the grant’s progress — which so far has been non-definitive but nevertheless a cause for optimism — may cause premature excitement and a false sense of security among townspeople. 

“We can’t tell them that this is a sure thing that will happen by a certain date,” Laub said. “Not yet.” 

This caution also ties into the affordability factor of digital access, which is not addressed at the resident level with this bill. Because, as Laub said, the grant is not a subsidy for anyone’s activity, the town still needs to pursue ways to include residents who won’t be able to immediately take advantage of the new fiber optic lines. 

In addition to a grant the town has applied for that would actually subsidize connection costs, Laub said that the town is in negotiations with an internet service provider who he said may be willing to cover at least some of the cost of fiber-to-home connections — an infrastructure investment that, unlike the installation of significant amounts of broadband, is more likely to net revenue for the private company by covering a one-time cost for would-be subscribers that might otherwise deter them from signing up for service plans.

 

Background

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of internet reliability in the modern era, as families who relied on internet-access through their school, workplace, or other local center were forced to figure out how to carry their increasingly digital lives on at home amid shutdown orders. 

Compounding the issue is that technologies critical to many telework setups, such as videoconferencing, require high amounts of bandwidth, which puts strain on those who have existing albeit spotty internet connections. This is largely true of remote iterations of education, local government, and healthcare as well. 

And it’s not a problem that will be any less urgent if the pandemic slowly fades out.

According to data from Pew Research Center, 54 percent of workers who were able to work from home during the pandemic hope to continue doing so even after the pandemic is over, which Pew says “may portend a significant shift in the way a large segment of the workforce operates in the future.”

When meeting with the Westerlo community, Tonko said he considered the fight for broadband to be similar to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s fight for national access to electricity in the 1930s. 

“So, today,” Tonko said, “the modern-day fight for utilities is broadband. Doctors need to read X-rays … and students shouldn’t be going to a library parking lot to do their homework, and businesses need to have access to modern-day technology.”

 

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