September 2021 TCCOG Report

Monthly Report

Tompkins County Council of Governments

for September 8, 2021

by Councilperson Robert Lynch, Enfield TCCOG Representative:

[Note: There was no report for August 2021]

The Tompkins County Council of Governments (TCCOG) met on August 26th.  While TCCOG discussed several topics, its most important discussion concerned the status of the County-sponsored consultants’ study into expanded rural broadband Internet.  Developments regarding that study have prompted a Resolution that I have asked be placed before our Town Board tonight.

As a brief background summary, the Tompkins County Legislature in October 2020 commissioned a study by the County’s Planning Department in conjunction with the Southern Tier Network (STN), a non-profit so-called “middle mile” cable provider, and Fujitsu Corporation to investigate opportunities for a governmentally-managed broadband service to reach rural areas not served by existing hard-wired Internet providers.  Tompkins County funded the study with upwards of $80,000, but asked rural municipalities to contribute.  The Enfield Town Board, by a Resolution adopted last October 14th, pledged $5,000 in Town funds toward the study.  Most other participating municipalities pledged a similar amount.  To date, Tompkins County has not billed Enfield for the contribution it pledged.

STN and Fujitsu launched their study with a Kickoff presentation April 20th.  A Broadband Committee of TCCOG, on which I sit as Enfield’s representative, was intending to meet monthly.  Our last meeting was held June 17th.  In light of TCCOG’s discussions August 26th, and a Resolution I introduced, County Planning staffers are attempting to schedule a Broadband Committee meeting for later this month.

But judging from TCCOG member reaction to a controversial August 6th memorandum written by Tompkins County Planning and Sustainability Department Commissioner Katie Borgella, together with the unilateral decisions made by Borgella’s Department, the broadband study may be terminated before it’s completedAnd as a result of this turn of events, I intend to move tonight that the Enfield Town Board rescind its October 2020 financial commitment that helped underwrite this broadband study.

Due largely to the standards STN and Fujitsu used to determine local broadband Internet availability, and the limitations such definitional standards imposed, the consultants found a remarkably small number of Tompkins County households lacking adequate broadband.  Depending upon the criteria employed, the consultants’ market assessment found as few as 269 housing units underserved—or perhaps 473 housing units based on an alternate criterion.

Wrote Planning Commissioner Borgella in her August 6th memo:  “Given the limited number of underserved households, the County asked Fujitsu to pause their work on a full build-out analysis of running new middle mile fiber to serve those underserved homes (a very expensive proposition), in order to pursue conversations with Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to find out what incentives would be necessary to expand their current networks to serve the underserved.  That approach seemed like it could result in a lower cost while potentially serving more households.”

The Commissioner’s memo continued:  “In addition, everyone involved recognized that 269 housing units was an undercount of the underserved homes given the limitations on data sources provided by Federal grant agencies.  Engaging our local ISPs should result in better first-hand, on-the-ground knowledge about the areas without service.”

At the August 26th TCCOG meeting, I, for one, told my colleagues, “I think the study failed because we built a house on a crumbling foundation, and that foundation was the data we used to determine lack of service.  When you talk about 269 housing units that were considered underserved in this county, that’s laughable.  There are so many more.  There are probably 269 households just in the Town of Enfield that are underserved.”  (The study used U.S. Census data that vastly overestimated broadband’s reach.)

Others joined me with their criticism.  “It really missed the mark,” Dryden Supervisor Jason Leifer said of the Fujitsu study.  Leifer, whose own Town is planning a municipal broadband service of its own, insisted that a publicly-managed system holds the key to not only expanding service to unreached areas, but also to improving competition and lowering rates below those demanded by private monopolies.

Asserted Leifer, “It’s not just people who don’t have a service.  It’s people who have no competition, who are relying on DSL, or who are relying on satellite, or rely on Spectrum, which to be frank, is way too much money for way too little, and it’s unreliable.”  (Charter-Spectrum is the private company that provides Internet to most of Tompkins County, but not Enfield.)

“I was very disappointed with Katie’s response,” said Danby Supervisor Joel Gagnon.  “And I hate to be cynical,” he added, “but it almost seems to me like we were set up from the get-go with the way this study was done in that it didn’t really assess the adequacy of service.  All it did was confirm a pre-existing, I would say, bias on the part of the County.”

Like Dryden’s Leifer, Danby’s Gagnon sought the price and service competition that he’d hoped municipal broadband would provide.  “Nothing short of an alternative that was comprehensive would have addressed these needs,” argued the Danby Supervisor.  “Having seen her statement,” said Gagnon of Borgella’s memo, “it certainly begged the question:  Well, if not that, then what?”

That “what” could become a hodge-podge of private service—or maybe nothing at all.  Borgella’s memo suggested that a final decision on whether to terminate the Fujitsu-STN contract would come this month and would follow meetings with the private providers who might fill the gaps.  As a parallel effort, a multi-county grant application will be filed, seeking funds for providers, including Haefele Connect (Enfield’s principal hard-wired provider) and Point Broadband (formerly Clarity Connect), to extend service to 213 households in Newfield, Danby and Caroline.  Nonetheless, Borgella cautioned, “It is apparently a long-shot that we will be funded, given the small number of homes, but it seemed worth the effort to try and obtain the funds.”

At the August meeting, I asked another obvious question, to which I have yet to receive an answer:  “I have a question as to how much of that Fujitsu money—it was $80,000 the County allocated—how much of that has been spent, and is that money possibly money down a rat hole, that we’re never going to see any benefit from?”

Based on my fear that the STN/Fujitsu broadband study is an opportunity lost, and that better opportunities exist for Enfield to enhance our Town’s Internet service, I will tonight urge this Town Board to rescind its October 14th, 2020 funding Resolution that supported the STN/Fujitsu study.

Respectfully submitted,

Robert Lynch, Councilperson

Enfield TCCOG Representative

Addendum: As stated in this report, prepared before the September 8, 2021 Town Board meeting, Councilperson Lynch did propose a Resolution seeking rescission of the Town Board’s October 2020 funding commitment for the intermunicipal broadband study. However, following discussion, the Board tabled the proposed Resolution. Subsequent to the September meeting, Tompkins County officials provided strong indication to participating Towns that the County would likely not seek to collect on the pledged contributions, money, so far, not billed. / RL