Morgan Frisch/Recorder staff

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara are pictured Thursday at the Fonda-Fultonville Elementary School. Gillibrand discussed a new bill that would provide broadband for rural areas.

By MORGAN FRISCH

Recorder News Staff

FONDA — Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand stood before a crowd at the Fonda-Fultonville Elementary School on Thursday and said, “reliable fast internet service isn’t a luxury anymore, it’s actually a necessity.”

Gillibrand announced the Broadband Connections for Rural Opportunities Program Act (B-CROP Act). The bipartisan bill was introduced by Gillibrand and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito and would make grant funding available for rural broadband projects in high-need areas to be awarded in combination with the current loan funding available through federal Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service.

“Both parties recognize how important high-speed internet access is for our students and our economy,” Gillibrand said.

She said many rural communities in this area lack access to high-speed internet, and the infrastructure costs are too prohibitive.

“This bill will solve that problem by allowing rural communities and broadband service providers to apply for a combination of grants and loan funding to put this infrastructure in place,” she said.

Danielle Bombard, who lives in the town of Charleston, attended the press conference. She works as a substitution teacher and said many of her students who live in Charleston do not have internet access.

“I would be doing a handspring” if the bill passes, Bombard said. “It would make things so much easier.”

Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, who was present Thursday, had a map of the Fonda-Fultonville school district available for viewing. On the map, the area of Charleston was completely red, indicating the lack of coverage in that area.

Gillibrand said about 11 percent of Fonda-Fultonville students from grades 3 through 12 do not have internet access at home.

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

Gillibrand said the lack of internet will not only hurt their classroom experience, but it will make students less prepared to go out into the workforce where having computer skills is a requirement for some good paying jobs.

“In many cases, even when a family wants to install high speed internet, they can’t do it because there’s no infrastructure. There’s no cable, there’s no towers in some of the harder to reach areas of our state around here,” she said. “Imagine not having access to power, or to a road, or to electricity, or to water. Those are fundamental things that we decided as a country every family had the right to have access to and I do believe that is how we should be thinking about internet access.”

According to Gillibrand’s office, the  B-CROP Act will do several things:

• Allow for grants of up to 50 percent of a project’s cost, and up to 75 percent for remote, high-need areas, to be awarded in combination with the current loan funding available through USDA’s Rural Utilities Service.

• Help enhance the economic feasibility of projects serving rural and tribal areas.

• Give highest priority to projects in areas that are currently unserved by high-speed broadband.

• Coordinate with the Federal Communications Commission’s Universal Service High-Cost Support programs to complement those federal investments, responsibly spending taxpayer money.

• Increase the authorized funding for the federal Rural Utility Service’s Broadband programs to $50 million per fiscal year.

• Provide adequate resources to private sector providers, including corporations, LLCs, cooperatives or mutual organizations, state or local governments, and Indian tribes or tribal organizations, to expand broadband access to unserved rural areas.

• Give partnership projects special attention, including initiatives that leverage matching funds and that work with anchor institutions like health centers, libraries, colleges, universities, and other educational entities.

Santabarbara said almost half of the area is lacking access to the state’s minimum speed of 6.5 megabits per second and access to download speeds of 100 megabits per second, which is regarded by most economic experts as a minimum needed for economic development. He said this detracts from the quality of life.

“In 2017, access to the internet is no longer a want, it’s a need. It’s a critical piece of 21st century infrastructure,” Santabarbara said. “Families must be connected to succeed in today’s world.”

Fonda-Fultonville Board of Education President Matthew Sullivan said the establishment of broadband services in the district’s rural areas is critical.

“Fonda-Fultonville has made it a priority to integrate technology into our classrooms to make sure our students will be successful in college and career,” he said. “11 percent of our students can’t get the internet at home because of limited broadband services, so we provide them with opportunities outside of the regular school day by opening computer labs after school. We’re also exploring the possibility of school-owned hot spots, and testing the cost and technical feasibility of WiFi on school buses. These initiatives, however, offer less benefits compared to dedicated broadband at students’ homes, and require resources that could be used for the district’s academic program.”

Fulton County Center for Regional Growth President and CEO Ron Peters said access to high-speed, quality, affordable broadband service is not a luxury anymore, but a vital economic development need.

He said the counties are losing their competitive edge without high-speed internet.

Town of Mohawk Supervisor Edward Bishop said there are some people along the peripheral edges of his town who don’t have broadband but should.

“It’s great legislation, he said. “Now we’ve got to see if the providers will get in here and take advantage of it. It’s up to them.”

Village of Fonda Mayor William Peeler said he was recently in the Adirondacks without cellphone service and he couldn’t imagine how the people feel who are left without internet.

“It’s great to have home-grown roots and all that, but it’s also great to know what’s going on in the world, and there may be a lot of leaders out there that are not founded because they are not connected with rest of the world,” he said.

Peeler said he’s glad it’s bipartisan legislation.

“We need more of that for sure,” he said.

Montgomery County District 9 Legislator Robert Purtell said he was also in support of the legislation and it is definitely needed and required for the youth in the local community.

“I think that in my district there’s some under served areas that I’d like to see get broadband,” he said. “I think that we take it for granted growing up with cable TV and things like that that everybody has these options, but I’ve found in the past three years that some of my constituents don’t have the availability and their children are suffering because of it.”

Gillibrand said Fulton and Montgomery counties need the resources to compete with the rest of the state, other states and the world. She encouraged the crowd in attendance Thursday to tell their stories and speak out about how the lack of broadband impacts their lives.

“Frankly, the only time anything gets done in Washington is when regular people speak out and that’s us,” she said. “So please speak out, be heard and let our elected leaders and our community how important this is to you so we can launch these resources and pass this bill.”