EDITOR’S NOTE: All Politics Is Local is a series of dispatches about life and politics in rural America.
It used to be that if you wanted to use a cell phone at our home in the northern Catskills, your only option was to walk to the edge of the meadow behind the house, climb onto the stone wall, and wave your phone in the air as high as you could. With luck, you might be able to get a signal. I myself almost never succeeded in doing anything other than lose my balance.
Internet access was even worse. For a while, we had a contraption that looked like a ray gun pointed up to a tower on one of the mountains to the south of us, but any modest storm would cause the thing to move a millimeter or two, thus disturbing the necessary line of sight. Then we would wait for days until the ray gun company sent a repairman to climb onto the roof and adjust it again.
We still have no cell phone service, but we do have the Internet, thanks to the fact that we live on the main road through our village and a few years ago the big provider in the area strung fiber optic cable past our house. If we lived on any of the other roads in the village, though, we’d still be in the Internet wilderness.
So it was no surprise to me that a few days ago, at a bipartisan forum for candidates running for the town board—the first time, incidentally, that Democrats and Republicans in this overwhelmingly Republican area have cooperated in putting on a formal presentation—Internet service was the biggest topic of the day. During the question period, the guy sitting next to me started off the discussion by saying he had just moved here and had discovered, much to his dismay, that there was no reliable connection where he bought his house. “It never crossed my mind” that that would be the case, he said, adding that the local cable company had told him it would cost $12,000 to bring a fiber optic line to his house.
The town supervisor was sympathetic. “I was told it would cost me $45,000 to run a line to my house” several years ago, he said. “Our problem is that there are so few people.” The company says that there have to be at least 15 potential customers within a mile on a given road to make it worth their while to string cable. “But there aren’t even 15 houses on my road,” he said.
I happen to know where the new guy lives, and have seen yard signs for Republican candidates outside his house, so I was careful when I asked him later whether he would favor a government move to bring broadband to all Americans, as was done with electricity in the 1930s. Or, I ventured, would he regard that as a form of “socialism”? His response was that as far as he’s concerned, it’s a simple matter of government responsibility—which I took to mean: I don’t care what it’s called, just get it done.
It’s hard for people who live in cities to understand how acute the problem of a lack of Internet access is in places like the village where I live. There are kids who can’t get their homework assignments because teachers post the information online, doctors who can’t employ existing technology that would allow them to monitor chronically ill older patients, and business owners who lose potential customers because they can’t communicate with them online. As one of the other voters at the candidates’ forum said, “I don’t see anything else as key to development” as good Internet service. “It has to be a priority.”
Easier said than done, however. I went to an FCC broadband field hearing a few weeks ago organized by our representative, Antonio Delgado, a Democrat and member of the Congressional Rural Broadband Task Force. Noting at the start of the hearing that the 19th congressional district is “the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined,” Delgado went on to exchange ideas with a panel on what should be done. I came away with my head spinning from the lengthy discussions about errors in measuring Internet coverage by Census blocks, the difficulties and costs Internet service providers face in getting permission to use existing utility poles, and the overwhelming complexity involved in applications for state or national assistance.
Delgado recently introduced two bills that would strengthen Internet mapping and reporting requirements, and in late October was one of almost 50 members of Congress who signed a bipartisan letter urging more funding to supply high-speed Internet service to rural America.
These initiatives all sound great, but this isn’t the 1930s, when the federal government was much more ready to forcefully intervene to solve domestic problems. It was that fact that led me to comment to my new acquaintance that maybe we need a committee to look into what the town can do on its own, either to badger the local provider or to find alternatives. Later, during the coffee and cookies that followed the formal presentation, I overheard him suggesting exactly that to the town supervisor—and offering to be a member of the committee.
I couldn’t help thinking that on at least some issues, Republicans and Democrat are all on the same page.