July 2021 TCCOG Report

Monthly Report

Tompkins County Council of Governments

for July 14, 2021

by Councilperson Robert Lynch, Enfield TCCOG Representative

The Tompkins County Council of Governments (TCCOG) met on June 24th.  One week earlier, the TCCOG Broadband Committee, of which I am Enfield’s representative, also met.  Both meetings made news.  I’ll provide a summary.

At the Broadband Committee’s meeting, Blake Stovall and Ray Diaz, representatives of study partner Fujitsu Corporation, presented their “Market Assessment Study” and outlined in relatively generic terms the communities they seek to serve by the County’s eventual extension of broadband Internet cables to those county populations determined to be “unserved” or “underserved.”  However, the demarcation of those so-called “underserved” populations has become a rather hot-button issue.

For convenience—and no doubt, economy—Fujitsu researchers have chosen to use June 2020 Federal Communications Commission (FCC) data to identify any absence of broadband service.  “This analysis is the most useful,” the study team’s PowerPoint slide informed us.  But the FCC methodology relies on coverage data that get no more “granular” than the size of a single U.S. Census Block.  Under the FCC’s broad-brush standard, if just one home within a census block—its perimeter bounded by roads or rivers—receives high-speed Internet service, then everybody within that block supposedly gets it.  The unreliability of the data becomes self-evident.

For example, in Enfield’s northeastern corner, one census block is defined as bounded by Hayts, Sheffield, Iradell, and Van Dorn Roads.  Even if only one of those on Hayts (or a few households on Hayts) receives broadband Internet, everyone living in that entire block would be, nonetheless, presumptively served.

Under such imprecision, the study vastly understates Tompkins County’s digital divide.  The study concludes just four per cent of the county’s rural population is underserved.  Within the entire Ithaca City School District, it identified only 78 “underserved” households.  273 households were tallied as “underserved” in the Newfield District; just 21 in Trumansburg; and a mere three in the Odessa-Montour school system.  A map the study team provided showed only a tiny section of Enfield’s southeast corner as “underserved.”

The study has set ambitious minimum acceptable standards for Internet service; a standard of 100 megabits per second “using cable or fiber technology” (only). The study team classifies satellite Internet services—including Elon Musk’s SpaceX Starlink experiment—as “not a viable substitute.”  DSL, satellite and wireless services are “inherently unreliable” claimed Blake Stovall, Fujitsu’s Engagement Leader.

The inadequacy of the study’s standards brought pushback at the committee’s June 17th meeting. 

“That’s not even close to accurate,” Zack Lind, the Ithaca City School District’s representative to the Broadband Committee, reacted in reply to the research team’s statistics regarding the Ithaca Schools.

“The data is not 100 per cent accurate,” Fujitsu’s Stovall conceded.

“The data is not accurate enough,” Lind rebutted.                                                                                          

The Towns of Newfield and Lansing have commissioned their own consultant, purportedly an employee of Clarity Connect, to conduct a more specific road-by-road, even house-by-house, survey of where broadband exists and where it does not.  Research team members said they’d use the extra data, when supplied.  But in response to my question, they said they would not delay their analysis just to await the more specific data from any other town.

Fujitsu researchers have abandoned any thought of stringing new cables to serve only the “underserved” populations.  Rather, their two-phase approach would first deploy broadband Internet “to target large clusters of underserved areas.”  The project’s Phase Two would seek to serve those already-served populations that Phase 1 cables would need to traverse to link the underserved areas.  Thus, it appears the new, governmentally-subsidized service would in some instances compete directly with existing providers.

By the way, there’s something we in Enfield can feel really good about.  Our cable-based provider, Haefele Connect, may be among the region’s best.

A customer satisfaction survey, shown the committee, gave Haefele an impressive rating of 3.7 stars out of five.  Ontario Trumansburg Telephone Cooperative came in at 2.8.  Spectrum-Ithaca, by contrast, earned only a 2.3.  One commenter complained of Spectrum, “It’s over-priced, with terrible customer service.”

At TCCOG’s June 24th meeting, members adopted a Resolution that, if endorsed by the State, would give local governments increased flexibility in allowing Board members’ permission to attend meetings virtually or even for the Board to hold an entire municipal meeting via zoom. 

Under current State law—now that Governor Cuomo no longer waives the rules—a municipal Board member may attend remotely only so long as that member’s whereabouts are publicized in advance.  By so doing, members of the public would gain permission to visit the attendee at his or her remote location—even in the member’s own home.  TCCOG’s proposed change would amend State law to strike the requirement of in-person public access “so long as the public has the opportunity to attend the meeting either remotely or at a predetermined, public location where members are present in-person….”  In effect, any or as many of us could still zoom-into meetings from home, providing our meeting room was left open to the public, or if we provided the public a zoom link to observe.

I saw a problem, and I became the only TCCOG member to vote against the Resolution.  My rationale was that amending State law with TCCOG’s broad language could perpetuate the zoom meeting forever.  And I’ve sensed that our constituents don’t want that.  They want us to return to in-person meetings.  I’d offered a compromise—namely proposing that the law allow remote attendance providing a quorum of the elected body still meets at that “predetermined public location.”  TCCOG’s majority did not accept my amendment.  Rather, the Dryden Village’s Michael Murphy expressed the prevailing view.  When it comes to remote meetings, said Murphy, “I kind of like letting the Board decide, not the State.”

Respectfully submitted,

Robert Lynch, Councilperson

Enfield TCCOG Representative