Interviews & Profiles

Reaching rural areas with high-speed internet

A Q&A with Assembly Member Carrie Woerner.

Carrie Woerner, Assembly Committee on Libraries and Education Technology Chair

Carrie Woerner, Assembly Committee on Libraries and Education Technology Chair Assembly

For Assembly Member Carrie Woerner, the quest to connect every corner of the state is one that is constantly at the forefront of her mind. As the representative of a largely rural district, she hears constantly from constituents who are limited – in options for businesses, for education, for medical care, for entertainment, for employment opportunities – by the lack of high-quality internet options. In particular, during the pandemic she saw just how vital high-speed internet can be in her position as chair of the Libraries and Education Technology Committee. Already struggling to keep up in a remote school environment, many families were forced to huddle in cars outside local libraries, sometimes the only high-speed option available, using the Wi-Fi connection to complete assignments. That’s why she has continued to work with colleagues from across the aisle and Gov. Kathy Hochul’s administration to push for solutions in her district and across the state.

During the pandemic, libraries became a lifeline to many people who were struggling with staying connected to the outside world because they lacked quality internet options in their home. What role did they play in helping people through that time, and what role do you see them playing going forward?

I think libraries generally have – and we saw this in the pandemic – tended to get broadband access before the broader public gets it. So we saw how anybody who was doing remote school or remote work gravitated towards the libraries, and if it was, after hours, they would sit in the parking lot and draft off of the Wi-Fi in the library. So we saw the important role that internet access at a library played for people who don’t have the access at their home. I think one of the realities of our life in the 21st century is that remote access to things is a bigger and bigger part of our life. So whether we’re talking about education, or we’re talking about work, or we’re talking about health care, remote access is a big part of this. You can’t do that without internet access. There are other access issues around access to the device. As I’ve toured libraries around the state, a number of libraries will have the ability to check out a laptop. So you can check out a laptop, use it in the library, and then you check it back in again. It’s not just about having the internet access. It’s also about having the device you need to do the work on the internet. There are other libraries that have privacy booths, and you can schedule a telehealth visit in the privacy booth in the library because you don’t have internet access for telehealth at home. It’s maybe 20 degrees outside and you can’t sit in your car and do it in the parking lot. So libraries will have a privacy booth that you can use. So I think that the libraries are definitely looking at access in as broad of a definition as possible. But clearly having the wired access to broadband which they can then amplify using Wi-Fi modems in the space so that everybody can access it has proven to be very, very important.

The affordability aspect can sometimes be framed as an urban issue. Is that a concern in your district as well?

Absolutely. I mean, seniors on a fixed income, they’ve struggled with the cost of internet service. They struggled with the cost of cell service and mobile phone service. So it affects the senior population. It affects the working poor. It affects, obviously, the very poor. Any place where there’s a pocket of poverty, whether that’s urban or rural, it’s going to have an impact. We don’t regulate the pricing of internet service. It’s not a regulated utility. I think that will ultimately end up being problematic. So to be continued as to whether we incorporate internet and broadband into the regulated utilities. But I do think we’ve got to first focus on access, and then focus on affordability.

The state has deployed fixed Wi-Fi and satellite solutions in some remote areas where it is costly to lay and maintain wire for few homes. Do you think those are acceptable long-term solutions in those areas?

Is universal access possible so every home with the exception of the ones who choose to be off the grid has electricity coming to it? Every home has utilities coming to it. So it begs the question, why would we think it’s not possible to bring broadband access to every home if there are poles and wires that bring utilities to every home?