Officials rail against fee for rural broadband installers

James Neiss/staff photographerState Sen. Robert Ortt, center, was joined by Orleans County Legislator Chair Lynne Johnson, left, and Niagara County Legislator Dave Godfrey for a news conference calling for the repeal of broadband expansion fees.

TOWN OF WHEATFIELD - Republican lawmakers representing Niagara and Orleans counties expressed concern on Wednesday about a new fee that they say could threaten the expansion of broadband in under-served rural communities.

During a press conference at town hall, state Sen. Rob Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, joined Orleans County Legislative Chair Lynne Johnson and Niagara County Legislator David Godfrey, R-Wilson, called for the repeal of the fee which was implemented as part of this year’s state budget. They said the fee requires the New York State Department of Transportation to collect funds from companies that build broadband lines in state right-of-ways or under highways. 

Ortt believes the fee will present an obstacle to constituents living in rural areas of Niagara and Orleans counties to receiving internet broadband services. He said the timing of the fee could not be worse as many households in rural areas need broadband service more than ever to stay connected during the ongoing global pandemic. 

“It’s such a critical issue for their communities, their districts and our mutual constituents,” Ortt said. “The reason I think this is even more timely is because we’re living in a pandemic where people are working remotely, where children are going to school remotely. … For a lot of people in Western New York, and certainly in eastern Niagara and Orleans County, it’s not an automatic thing. Remote means you have to have access to high speed reliable internet, and they don’t have it.”

Ortt called on Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Democratic leadership in the state legislature to repeal what he described as a “tax” on broadband installers, saying it makes it more expensive for companies to bring broadband to needy communities in Western New York and across the state. 

“We’re here today to ask New York Senate Democrats, New York Assembly Democrats, to repeal that tax, and there is already a bill to do that, at least in the Senate," he said. 

Johnson noted that she has received calls from many of her constituents on this issue, most recently from a mother of twin 11 year olds in Orleans County who said she is in dire need of internet service for her family. 

“Spectrum stopped with in thousand feet in front of her home and her schoolchildren are falling behind, because when she gets home from work, they have to go to a wifi hotspot in order to do their work," Johnson said. "Pushing to repeal state broadband fees that disrupt several high speed internet expansion programs across regions of rural upstate is relevant to us.”

Johnson also challenged the 98% internet coverage success figure for the New NY Broadband Program, which was established in 2015. That figure is posted on the Broadband Program Office website. She said that she and Godfrey - who participated in efforts to obtain address points for the submission of an application for rural funding - found a significant number of homes in rural areas in both counties are still lacking in service. 

“We found at least 40% of homes had no conductivity in our two counties,” she said. 

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