TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—Efforts to address the gaps in high speed internet access in Tompkins County have long percolated, even before the COVID-19 pandemic deepened daily life’s dependence on online services. But one of the missing ingredients to effectively address the issue has always been accurate and granular data regarding where the gaps in access are.

In Oct. 2021, the County finally doubled down, committing to funding a “driving survey” that would detail where internet service providers (ISPs) aren’t running wires on the street level. However, this county study has come to a halt now that the State is pushing its own study across all of New York as a part of the $1B ConnectAll Initiative.

ConnectAll was announced as a part of Governor Kathy Hochul’s 2022 State of the State address, and the initiative touts forthcoming grant programs and efforts to increase the affordability of broadband. And step one of the initiative is a broadband assessment, which is being administered by the Public Service Commission, which is a part of the New York State Department of Public Service (DPS).

“The result we’re expecting to get from DPS will really give us that level of clarity and granularity that we need to move forward on this topic,” said Nick Helmholdt,  the Tompkins County Principal Planner and Tourism Program Director. “Because that’s been the issue from the beginning — not knowing where the gaps are, and how to resolve them.”

The county does not yet have a guarantee written down that it will have access to this data for its own purposes. “There’s still some hoops to jump through,” said Helmholdt, but he added that it seems likely, and that there is a clear path for Tompkins County to have access to that sort of data.

“We’re working closely with the state,” said Helmholdt.

Before conducting the driving survey, the state is beginning with an online survey that will close on Feb. 28, 2022. All New Yorkers are encouraged to take it.

“Everybody’s been complaining about how bad the FCC maps are for so long that the state and the county here just decided we’re not gonna wait for them to make it better,” said Helmholdt.

A driving survey can gather much more detailed data than the census block-based methods used by ISPs and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the federal agency which regulates internet providers.

Essentially, the FCC relies on ISPs to report the areas they serve in order to determine where there are gaps in broadband service. ISPs report their service area based on the census block, which are the smallest geographic unit that the U.S. Census uses.

If an ISP serves even one household on a census block, then it reports to the FCC that it serves that entire block.

The inaccuracy in the FCC’s broadband access data can be vast, particularly in rural areas like much of outer Tompkins County, where the size of some census blocks can rival the square acreage of the City of Ithaca.

“Everybody’s been complaining about how bad the FCC maps are for so long that the state and the county here just decided we’re not gonna wait for them to make it better,” said Helmholdt.

How this new mapping effort intends to make a difference

Adding insult to injury, the FCC’s flawed data is the supporting evidence used to determine the eligibility of federal assistance for expanding broadband access. The ConnectAll Initiative’s data set will open up state grants to areas attempting to address their broadband gaps. Funds will be coming from state coffers, as well as at least $100M (but likely much more) from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which dedicated $65B to improving broadband issues nation wide.

New York’s grant programs will be administered by the ConnectAll Initiate’s Office, which is housed in Empire State Development (ESD), the umbrella organization for New York’s public-benefit corporations. In a statement provided to the Ithaca Voice by ESD, the organization wrote, “We expect to make grant funding available to local municipalities and other eligible entities to plan, engineer, and construct broadband infrastructure.”

The influx of funding has huge potential to shake up the ways in which broadband service gaps have previously been addressed. 

The cost of building out and maintaining broadband infrastructure often doesn’t make financial sense for an ISP considering the limited market that they reach in rural areas. ISPs will typically provide the ultimatum that an individual household or street pay the cost of installing broadband infrastructure. 

In certain cases, Tompkins County has stepped in to help bankroll broadband infrastructure projects in partnership with Town governments and ISPs. This type of collaboration saw the funds come together to build out high speed internet access for 180 residents in the Town of Newfield last fall

The Town of Dryden has been pursuing a municipal broadband project that is estimated to cost around $14.53M. High speed internet service would be provided in the same way some municipalities supply water or sewer services. The more members of the community that buy in, the cheaper the service would be, reports Tompkins Weekly.

Had the State of New York never pushed its own broadband assessment effort with the ConnectAll Initiative, the data from Tompkins County’s would-be driving survey would have had a more limited use and drawn less financial support from the state and federal government. 

“(The ConnectAll Initiative) puts everybody in the state on an equal footing,” said Helmholdt. “Tompkins County has been lucky in that we have been in a position to be able to push some of this work. …But  knowing where those gaps are has been a problem with this situation since the very beginning. So just having that information I think will be really, really useful.”

Jimmy Jordan

Jimmy Jordan is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at Connect with him on Twitter @jmmy_jrdn