By Nate Benson, originally published in WGRZ on Published: 9:07 PM EDT June 19, 2020; Updated: 11:20 PM EDT June 19, 2020.

FCC Chairman touts ‘Gigabit Opportunity Zones’ for places like Buffalo with disconnected populations

But the bill is stalled in the Ways and Means committee; Congressman Brian Higgins sits on that committee.

Author: Nate Benson (WGRZ)
Published: 9:07 PM EDT June 19, 2020
Updated: 11:20 PM EDT June 19, 2020

BUFFALO, N.Y. — On Thursday, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai held a virtual fireside chat where he discussed the topic of bridging the digital divide, a problem that became even more abundantly clear in Western New York during the pandemic.

“I think the pandemic has really focused public attention writ large on the importance of broadband, and that is filtered into Congress,” Chairman Pai said. “We’re seeing elected officials from both chambers of Congress, both parties, really talking about conductivity and solutions to get us there.”

As 2 On Your side has been reporting for months, there’s a broadband problem in Western New York. An American Community study indicates nearly 20% of buffalo residents don’t have access to broadband. The New York State Broadband Program is riddled with incomplete projects, fee disputes and delayed freedom of information requests.

Residents in suburbs and rural communities had to use library parking lots during the pandemic to try and connect to a Wi-Fi signal.

Buffalo Public Schools handed out hundreds of hot spots in a desperate attempt to keep kids connected and engaged with their school work.

The City of Buffalo missed out on the Verizon FiOS build out a decade ago, and only sporadic suburbs received that service.

Western New York has historically missed out on opportunities to get out of the digital black hole, either because of regulations, lawmakers, or service providers unwilling to serve the community.

2 On Your Side was allowed to ask Chairman Pai one question during this webinar, which was hosted by Phillips Lytle attorney Joel Thayer. Using the above information we asked the Chairman the following:

How can the FCC ensure these people [in Buffalo] won’t be continuously left behind as technologies shift?

Below is his part of his complete answer:

“A great question and I was born in Buffalo, I’m actually excited about a firsthand appreciation of the challenge that Nate is talking about. So over the past three months, we’ve taken a lot of steps to ensure that school kids like that are able to get conductivity, for example, we’ve expanded the opportunity for people to get into our lifeline program, which provides high-speed broadband and other services to low-income consumers.

We’ve also streamlined the process for schools to solicit and accepted for service providers to offer broadband conductivity and devices and Wi-Fi hot spots in the light the problem we have faced at the FCC over the last three months is that the statute that enables us through our E-rate program to subsidize conductivity to schools and libraries, and school kids and library patrons is limited to services to classrooms.

It uses those very specific words, services, and classrooms. That’s why early on over three months ago, I sent a letter to Congress urging them to keep the FCC the authority and the funding to set up a remote Learning Initiative to direct funds to those urban school districts in particular that were low income to get those hot spots into the hands of consumers who couldn’t otherwise afford them to enable broadband to reach those consumers.

Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Congress didn’t give us the authority to set up a telehealth program. So we have set up a program to get telehealth to those same consumers. But we haven’t seen as much action on the educational side. I hope that changes. In the meantime, looking forward, what I want to do is to make sure that we close that digital divide.

We have a $20 billion program called the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund to get unserved parts of the country serve. We’ve done a lot of other regulatory reforms to benefit urban consumers. Such as it is an arcane reformed, it’s called one check to make ready to ensure that the cost of getting access to utility holds a string of fiber line is significantly lower and much quicker.

That’s going to be a big game-changer, especially in urban areas where it might be difficult to build a broadband network. So there’s a lot of other stuff going.

But what I will say is that we would love for Congress to take some of these proposals I put on the table and run with them. I want to pick one that I’ll mention is called gigabit opportunity zones. It was tailor-made for places like buffalo. In fact, it was inspired by former buffalo congressman Jack Kemp. And the idea I had for years ago was to set designate an urban area, for example, a couple of urban blocks or an entire neighborhood where the median income was 75%, or lower than the national median, and say that internet service providers would get tax breaks for building high quality, high-speed infrastructure in those areas. That would be an easy way of ensuring that you don’t see these, you know, blanks essentially when you’re creating a broadband map of conductivity in urban areas.”