Tompkins County Council of Governments
for October 13, 2021
by Councilperson Robert Lynch
Enfield TCCOG Representative
The Tompkins County Council of Governments (TCCOG) has not met as a group since my September 8th report. However, important to this discussion, the TCCOG Broadband Committee met September 16th. At that time, committee members received a briefing by Tompkins County planning officials and learned why County Planning and Sustainability Department Commissioner Katie Borgella had “paused” the ongoing consultants’ study by the Southern Tier Network (STN) and Fujitsu Corporation. The pause came only after consultants had completed the first phase of their four-phase study into extending broadband Internet to the county’s currently unserved or underserved areas. As will be explained later, the County has since terminated the Fujitsu Study and replaced it with an alternate initiative.
As I’d explained in the September TCCOG Report, members of both TCCOG and the Broadband Committee had sensed problems with the Fujitsu Study, concerns amplified by Commissioner Borgella’s action. A split developed among committee members, often dictated by the region of the county they represent. Where broadband remains spotty, members supported the study’s continuation. The study also found support among those—most notably Dryden Supervisor Jason Leifer—who criticized the performance of their community’s dominant carrier, Charter-Spectrum. But study critics—and I admit I am one—found the Fujitsu Study contaminated at the outset by its flawed underlying database, one that purportedly showed everyone in Enfield with sufficient hard-wired broadband access.
These varied contrasting arguments received ample airing at the September 16th committee meeting. Some who backed the study’s continuation expressed their ultimate goal of having the non-profit “middle-mile” cable provider STN not only fill-in the existing service gaps, but also extend lines to adequately-served communities so as to provide a competitive alternative to existing private firms. They wanted choice. But as I wrote to this Town Board’s members in an interim report September 23rd:
“County officials, most notably Dryden Legislator Martha Robertson, attempted to tamp down calls for a public option. The hour-long meeting’s most notable quote was hers: ‘Tompkins County can’t become everybody’s ISP,’ she said. To that, Robertson added, the ongoing study ‘should not be seen as a contract by County staff to manage this…. If you want us to do underserved (as opposed to merely the unserved populations), you’re going to ask us to raise the property tax.’”
On October 5th, acting on the unanimous recommendation earlier that day of Robertson’s Planning and Economic Development Committee, the Tompkins County Legislature ended the Fujitsu Study. Instead, legislators voted to “repurpose” the remaining balance of the $80,000 study’s allocation to undertake a “physical survey of fixed broadband” countywide. The survey seeks to correct the data flaw that has overstated broadband’s true reach within Tompkins County for more than a decade.
Less controversial, but important to cash-strapped localities, including Enfield, the County Legislature also October 5th voted to release municipalities and school districts from the individual pledged contributions they’d made one year ago to help defray the County’s cost of the Fujitsu Study. The Enfield Town Board had pledged $5,000, but was never billed. Now we won’t be.
In a last-ditch effort October 5th to save the Fujitsu Study, Danby/Caroline Legislator Dan Klein proposed both completing the original study and also performing the county-wide survey. Klein would have drawn $20,000 additional dollars from either the County’s (already depleted) Contingency Fund or from Federal ARPA relief. Klein’s idea didn’t fly. The Legislature rejected it five votes to nine. Among Enfield’s legislators, Anne Koreman supported the two-pronged approach; Dave McKenna opposed it. McKenna explained he terminated the Fujitsu Study because “the data is just no good.”
Before the County Legislature’s vote (and before I knew of of Klein’s proposed compromise, which I would have supported), I addressed the Legislature under its Privilege of the Floor and brought up a weakness of the STN “middle-mile” extension plan; an argument others raised earlier in committee, namely its lack of connectivity to the home. It’s like with telephone service, I said. “You can have the greatest long-distance carrier in the world, but that does no good if you don’t have phone service in your home or a cell tower nearby.” Many on the Legislature agreed. Again, famously, in committee, Martha Robertson asked “Would we be building a bridge to nowhere?”
To me, one of the Fujitsu Study’s most disturbing aspects as it evolved over the summer concerned its lack of geographic equity. When Enfield was approached late last year to contribute to the broadband initiative, we’d been led to believe STN’s entry would bring county-wide benefit. But when Commissioner Borgella paused the study in early-August, we learned that the service extensions would only target three towns; Danby, Caroline, and Newfield. And after Borgella had announced the pause, the Legislature approved a separately-funded, County initiative that will fill-in some of Newfield’s Internet dead spots. The County will fund new service by Point Broadband in the Millard Hill Corridor, just south of the Enfield town line.
Despite prior optimism, Enfield had little to gain from the Fujitsu Study as it advanced beyond its April kickoff. More accurate data identifying service gaps could have accorded our town opportunity. I would hope the new, County-funded road-by-road survey will provide us the more substantial baseline that’s truly necessary. From that better baseline, we may begin to build expanded service. About $35,000 of the Fujitsu Study money remains unspent.
County Planning’s current vision calls for individual private providers, firms such as Point Broadband, Haefele, and perhaps Charter-Spectrum, to extend lines to those unserved locations that the forthcoming broadband survey will identify. Nonetheless, I will advise you that the Legislature’s October 5th decision has left some leaders dissatisfied. Those disappointed include County Legislator Klein, Caroline Supervisor Mark Witmer, and State Assemblymember Anna Kelles, who’d strongly advanced STN’s local entry before voters promoted her to the New York Legislature. It remains possible that we have not heard the end of STN’s possible local involvement.
TCCOG next meets October 28th.
Councilperson, Enfield TCCOG Representative