Legislator wants to end state broadband hosting fee
By JOHN WHITTAKER
State Sen. George Borrello’s proposal to end a state right-of-way fee on fiber optic companies has gained an unlikely ally.
Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner, D-Saratoga Springs, wants to end state fiber-optic right-of-way fees to stimulate more broadband expansion throughout the state. Woerner has introduced A.8287 in the Assembly to amend the state Highway Law and Transportation Corporations Law to prohibit the state transportation commissioner from including fees for use and occupancy of state rights of way in an agreement with a fiber optic utility. Any such fees in existing agreements would be deemed unenforceable, though the state could keep any money it has already collected.
The fiber optic fee was established in 2019. From April to July 1, 2021, the state collected $330,000 from fiber optic companies. That money is placed in the Dedicated Highway and Bridge Trust fund.
“The DOT fiber optic fee established by ch. 59 of the laws of 2019 effectively suppresses private investment in new wireline broadband expansion projects, even as the New NY Broadband Program strives to rapidly expand wireline broadband internet service into unserved and underserved areas of the state,” Woerner wrote in her legislative justification. “The DOT fee specifically stifles private investment, because it applies to all new and existing fiber optic installations which are not grant-funded by the Broadband Program.”
Woerner’s legislation is similar to legislation introduced in September 2020 by Borrello, R-Sunset Bay, and Sen. Pam Helming, R-Geneva. Senate Bill 8858, which never made it out of the Senate’s Codes Committee, would also repeal the tax on fiber optic cable in state road rights of way that was enacted in the 2019-20 state budget. A companion bill to Borrello’s bill was introduced in the Assembly but similarly didn’t make it out of committee. Both of the Republican bills have been reintroduced in the current legislative session but never received an airing in their respective committees.
Many elected officials — Republican and Democrat — have said broadband access is a necessity akin to running water and electricity. In introducing S.8858, Borrello noted the other utilities are given free access to the rights of way for which fiber optic installers are now being charged.
“One of the inequities highlighted by the pandemic has been the continuing lack of broadband service in many rural regions of New York. The COVID crisis and the shift to remote work and schooling upgraded this problem from ‘important’ to ‘urgent,'” Borrello said when he introduced the legislation. “Parents in my district have been driven to desperate measures to assure their kids can get online to do their schoolwork, including parking for hours in fast-food parking lots for the wi-fi access. This is utterly unacceptable. The digital divide has become a digital chasm and one that threatens to leave our kids and rural families with a permanent educational and economic disadvantage.”