Tracy Mitrano wants to get broadband internet to everyone for purposes of education, work, telemedicine, communication and commerce, she said.

“If we want to bring our district, the twenty-third, into the twenty-first century, we have to have it,” she said. 

Broadband is a means of transmission that enables better online communication. To support her argument, Mitrano, the Democratic challenger for the 23rd congressional district, which includes the Greater Olean area, invited Marcia Weber and Steven Manning from the Southern Tier Network to the May 26 edition of her weekly online show, “Tuesday Talks With Tracy.” 

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The Southern Tier Network is a not-for-profit that works to increase rural access to broadband and to increase telecommunications in the Southern Tier. Weber is the network's executive director, and Manning is its CEO.

Numerous mediums can be used for broadband transmissions, including optical fiber, the medium that Southern Tier Network uses. It is a transparent, flexible fiber made out of plastic or glass only slightly thicker in diameter than a human hair and capable of transporting information via light pulses. These fibers get collected and wrapped in casing to create fiber optic cabling, which delivers the broadband. 

Weber discussed providing optical fiber broadband to homes, which is frequently requested of the network. 

“Now more than ever, it’s essential,” Weber said. “We’re finding out, with COVID-19, that people need to work from home. They need to go to college from home. They need to go to elementary school. We can’t do that without the connections we were hoping to get.” 

Weber noted that such connections have started to happen in cities and in suburban areas but not yet in rural areas because of cost.

Manning spoke on present endeavors the Southern Tier Network has done in partnership with five counties: Tioga, Chemung, Schuyler, Yates and Steuben. 

“The leadership from the counties understand and recognize that universal access to affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband, it’s critical,” Manning said. “But the issue now is, how do we get internet services, comparable, futuristic internet services, to all of the residents in our area?”

To answer this question, the five counties and the Southern Tier Network have created a feasibility study, called the Southern Tier Broadband Coalition. With Fujitsu, an IT services company, the coalition has predicted that access to optical fibers will likely hold the most challenge, due to the high cost, Manning said. 

Depending on the amount of optical fibers used in the cabling, cost per mile could be anywhere from $8,500 to $30,000.

“It’s an investment that’ll last 35-plus years,” Manning said. “Maybe there’s a hybrid solution of using wireless and fiber, so we’re looking at that. The study will come up with a deployment plan, identify potential, possible funding sources, and develop a business and financial roadmap to deliver these internet services for the long term.”     

Mitrano also had hoped to bring Winona Flynn, treasurer of Yates County, on the show to discuss how funds from the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 could be used to bring broadband to farms, homes and businesses. However, Flynn was unable to attend.

The panelists and Mitrano talked about the ReConnect Grant Program; the impact of census data on broadband services; the amount of internet the Southern Tier Network aims to provide, and whether Congress has helped provide broadband to all.

Manning said Yates County received a roughly $13 million grant via the ReConnect Grant Program from the United States Department of Agriculture in 2019 and plans to use the funds to give about 1,635 addresses optical fiber broadband.     

Weber added that the USDA funds should be available to the other counties as well but that census data can make getting grants from funding organizations difficult.   

“In this case, they say if one house in a census block group is receiving service, then the whole census area counts as receiving service,” Manning said. “So, it can be one person who’s on the total other side of this census group from you but because they get it, you’re seen as getting it and you can’t get money, federal funding or state funding, to your house.”

Weber mentioned that federal and state governments recently started to recognize the flaw, due to the pandemic. 

“I think it’s good the counties have some skin in the game,” Mitrano said. “I think it’s also good that they have some autonomy because then they can speak effectively to ‘Hey, the way that you evaluated whether we have broadband or not isn’t really helping us.’ And, so, it allows for the real perspective of people that actually live where they are.”

Then, Mitrano asked Manning about how much internet the Southern Tier Network has to offer the counties.  

Manning used an info graphic to illustrate how the network plans to offer 100 megabyte internet, which can support online gaming, Zoom meetings, smart home applications and more. 

Weber said the federal government has not leaned toward providing broadband to all. It has, however, started to help in the efforts of giving some people broadband.

“I agree with Marcia,” Manning said. “I know of no national program mandating internet access. I know we have spent billions of dollars towards universal access, and it has fallen short. It’s been a state or a regional issue. The successful state or county municipalities are the ones that have been creative and have come up with solutions.”  

Mitrano agreed with Weber's and Manning's statements and added her thoughts on the necessity of broadband. 

“Because we keep thinking of it as this technology or like an add-on, instead of a fundamental utility, it has not gotten the comprehensive attention that electricity and, then, telephone did back in the twentieth century,” Mitrano said. “That’s something I truly believe Congress could and should address. It will be a very important issue, and I expect to exercise a leadership role in Congress on this point when I get there in 2021.”

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