Lawmaker disconnect

A Slic Network Solutions crew member installs fiber optic cable in Bangor in 2018. Watertown Daily Times

State authorities have expressed their strong support for ensuring everyone in New York has access to high-speed internet.

They launched the $500 million Broadband for All initiative in 2015.

They hoped to have the entire state hooked up to broadband internet in 2018.

Of course, specific challenges impeded this goal.

But different parts of the state have continued planning projects to increase access.

That’s good.

However, state legislators approved a provision in the 2019-2020 budget that is thwarting this objective.

“Earlier this year, the state Department of Transportation started charging fees to fiber optic line installers who build lines in a state-controlled highway right of way after the 2019-2020 state budget contained language that enacted a right of way tax or use and occupancy fee,” according to a story published Saturday by the Watertown Daily Times. “The DOT requires installers enter annual fee-bearing permits to charge corporations per foot, per cable, for fiber optic lines they own. It does not apply to phone, water or sewer lines.

“The fee recently stopped a town of Louisville broadband expansion project with Slic Network Solutions that’s been in the works for two years, Supervisor Larry Legault said. About 15 town residents and businesses signed a petition requesting Slic install a 2-mile strip of high-speed broadband aerial lines on Route 37 on electric poles,” the article reported. “Construction was expected to begin last fall, but the corporation halted the installation after finding out about the DOT’s required fee-bearing permit. … Slic was not anticipating the new DOT fee, Legault said, and company representatives were surprised to learn of the additional project price tag.”

State legislators from the north country sent a letter to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo requesting he waive this fee.

They pointed out how it’s brought projects to a halt.

“Collectively, we’ve heard from several municipalities on this matter — many of whom have indicated this language handcuffs them from moving forward with their respective projects to deliver broadband to residents,” the letter read. “This fee does nothing more than disincentivize the expansion of rural broadband and is nothing more than a roadblock for broadband expansion.”

The letter was signed by Assembly Minority Leader William A. Barclay, R-Pulaski; Assembly members Kenneth D. Blankenbush, R-Black River; D. Billy Jones, D-Chateaugay; Robert J. Smullen, R-Johnstown; Daniel G. Stec, R-Queensbury; and Mark C. Walczyk, R-Watertown; Senate Deputy Minority Leader Joseph A. Griffo, R-Rome; and Sens. Patricia A. Ritchie R-Oswegatchie, and Elizabeth O’Connor Little, R-Queensbury.

The fee is expected to raise as much as $30 million for the state this fiscal year. And given the financial losses that Albany has sustained as a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic, maintaining this fee is certainly inviting.

However, this health care crisis has compelled many people to use online resources for business, educational, medical and therapeutic purposes.

Extending high-speed internet is essential to rural areas of the state.

This fee disproportionately affects rural areas such as upstate because it is assessed per foot.

For geographically dense areas, the overall cost is lower and the expense per user is far less, meaning providers can attempt to pass along the tax in terms of higher fees.

In rural areas where there are fewer users who are much farther apart, the fees are excessive.

This is a glaring example of downstate legislators failing to understand how rural communities are structured.

If the state is going to impose a tax on infrastructure in rights of way, then it should tax all providers.

Why should fiber optic companies subsidize cable, phone or power?

Why are they getting a break on this?

This fee highlights the broadband divide facing rural New Yorkers who need high-speed access to go to the public schools, which the state government has closed.

Distance learning is difficult enough for families who have decent internet capabilities, but so many north country families do not have the access required.

Simply put, this is a tax on first-graders who want to learn.

The tax widens the gap between affluent urban families and lower-income rural families.

That broadband installers were surprised by this fee demonstrates that it received little attention when it was inserted into the budget last year.

There’s no doubt they would have made a lot of noise if they knew it had been proposed.

Laurie A. Marr, director of public affairs and communications for the Development Authority of the North Country, said the fee leaves many broadband projects up in the air.

As the installer of high-speed internet lines throughout much of Northern New York, DANC’s work is crucial.

Legislators must consider what New York will lose if this fee blocks progress on broadband access.

Some parts the state will remain with mediocre internet at best, and the pandemic has shown us this simply isn’t acceptable.

The fee must be eliminated so these projects can proceed.

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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