October 2020 TCCOG Report

Monthly Report

Tompkins County Council of Governments

October 14, 2020

by Councilperson Robert Lynch, Enfield TCCOG Representative

The Tompkins County Council of Governments (TCCOG) held a special meeting on September 25th, called at the request of Tompkins County Legislator Anna Kelles, the Legislature’s liaison to TCCOG.  The issue she requested be discussed was the state and expansion of rural broadband service within Tompkins County.  A Resolution coming as a result of that meeting is on our Town Board’s Consent Agenda tonight.

Central to the meeting’s discussion was a presentation by Steve Manning, Executive Director of the Southern Tier Network (STN), a non-for-profit regional provider of so-called “Dark Fiber, Middle-Mile” broadband infrastructure.  STN operates in five Southern Tier and Finger Lakes counties, Steuben, Chemung, Schuyler, Tioga and Yates.  STN, effectively, strings fiber optic cable which is then “lit” by other customers, primarily internet service providers (ISP’s), like Haefele Connect.   Manning emphasized STN does not provide ISP content, nor does it presently provide so-called “last mile” service, such as connections to an individual ISP customer’s home.

A word of caution:  The discussion was quite technical, highly complex, and one can easily become lost in the weeds.  I cannot adequately summarize the discussion in a few paragraphs or pages.  Should you wish to understand all that was discussed, you may visit Tompkins County’s’ You Tube channel, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NS0u7JgSWyA where the meeting is archived.

What Legislator Kelles proposed is to bring to her County Legislature later this month an Over Target Request (OTR), essentially an add-on to the County’s proposed 2021 Budget, now under review.  This OTR would provide $80,000 in County money for a study into the feasibility of a municipally-owned broadband system constructed in cooperation with STN.

Two principal arguments were advanced by Kelles, STN’s Manning, and some TCCOG members.  First, commercial broadband providers (the ISP’s) serve too few rural areas.  Secondly, those providers who do serve rural communities—Charter Communications’ Spectrum service was singled out as an example—exercise monopoly control; they provide too little bandwidth  and charge customers too much money.  An intermunicipal system, its supporters maintained, would be more “responsive” to local needs.

“Having a municipally-owned middle and last mile infrastructure really could change the game of prioritizing getting out to the most rural areas,” Kelles told TCCOG.  The municipal system could create “consistency, diversity in the system, economies of scale, and stronger bargaining power.”

On tonight’s Consent Agenda the Town Board has placed a Resolution that endorses the $80,000 County OTR request.  At this point, our Resolution calls for no expenditure of Enfield Town funds toward that investigation.  However, on that latter point of local funding, perhaps an explanation stands in order.

TCCOG on September 25th took no formal action on the broadband funding initiative.  However, TCCOG members attending expressed informal support and raised no objections.  Yet at the meeting, Legislator Kelles explained, “If the County does do a study, then it’s up to all of us to figure out what we want to do with it.”

As for requesting anything from TCCOG or its member municipalities, Kelles continued, “There isn’t an ‘ask’ right now, except, of course, to support the OTR when I bring it forward.”

A Resolution of support has been placed on tonight’s agenda.  However, a Model Resolution we received from the Town of Caroline last week contained a closing sentence that our Enfield resolution to be considered tonight does not include:

 “FURTHER BE IT RESOLVED that the Town of Caroline pledges $5000 to be paid to Tompkins County in 2021 when the contract for the above deliverables is executed.”

In subsequent conversations, Legislator Kelles has encouraged me to urge the Enfield Town Board to supply a similar $5,000 in local cost-sharing, identical to that from Caroline.  Local support remains a decision for our Town Board.  But in view that such Town-based funding was not discussed September 25th, I’ve responded to Legislator Kelles that should local support be requested, Kelles or her designee should attend a future meeting of our Board to justify such a request.  At least one of my Town Board colleagues has agreed that we should initially exclude local funding from tonight’s Resolution.

In my opinion, while a County-funded feasibility study may bring long-term County-wide or Town-wide benefits, the meeting, for me, left some issues unresolved.  Municipal broadband advocates see STN as the lynchpin to improved, more economical service.  To them, having STN “middle-mile” service connecting one community to another—they use the analogy of a well-built regional highway—provides local communities more bargaining clout in negotiating franchise agreements with ISP’s.  Indeed, one community, Dryden, contemplates an “overbuild,” establishing its own municipally-owned service to compete with the arguably overpriced Charter/Spectrum.

But for Enfield, I gleaned the following insights from the meeting:

  • Haefele Connect, Manning acknowledged, already “selectively uses” STN’s fiber “where it makes sense to them.”
  • Clarity Connect’s CEO, Chuck Bartosch, voiced skepticism.  Clarity holds a $1.3 Million grant to serve rural parts of Tompkins County, including Enfield.  “We have no need for middle-mile,” said Bartosch.  “That’s the last thing we need.  What we need to do is building out streets to actually serve people.”
  • STN Dark Fiber may actually be coming soon to Enfield even without local funding.  A grant-funded expansion, shared by Manning at the meeting, showed a planned “Ring Backbone” running up the full length of NY 327, through Enfield Center, and then West from Miller’s Corners, along Mecklenburg road toward Watkins Glen.  The “Ring Backbone” is in its design stage.  Thus, if Enfield finds STN of later benefit, the cable may be readily accessible.  (Note:  STN has already built a Dark Fiber trunk line from Spencer north to Ithaca.  But the line, said Manning, remains “unlit,” that is, not yet used.)

STN’s possible expansion to “last mile” local service may flow from the so-called “Fujitsu Study,” still in the final drafting.  Expect to hear more about this study in future weeks and months.  But for now, the Tompkins County OTR request remains the priority.  It keeps future options open.  A municipal broadband service sounds ambitious for Enfield.  Yet should Tompkins County take the lead in this initiative, collaborative opportunities could later arise.

Respectfully submitted,

Robert Lynch, Councilperson

Enfield TCCOG Representative