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Local lawmakers, residents eager for solution to broadband woes

CHESTERFIELD A narrow road runs parallel to the Adirondack Northway near Poke-O-Moonshine Mountain, the severe-looking peak located just south of Chesterfield. Dotted with pockets of homes and a summer camp, the road gives way to a series of arteries that snake between towering pines before eventually leading to Auger Lake. The site, about 22 miles south of Plattsburgh, is remarkable in both its beauty and frustration.

For the past five years, Robin Gucker has been fighting an uphill battle: securing a steady internet connection. She estimates the cluster of parcels has poor or no service 90 percent of the time through the provider, Frontier Communications, who offers DSL service through a phone line. This lack of reliable service, said Nancy Gucker Birdsall, director of the nearby North Country Camps, has caused significant headaches, affecting everything from communicating with parents to the submission of financial invoices.

There are simply days when we can t get work done, Birdsall said.

Technicians have become a steady presence. But visit after visit, they admit little can be done. The line, according to Gucker, is saturated due to the number of homes and businesses connected to stressed lines. And perhaps most maddeningly, Gucker and her husband, who runs an excavating business, are still paying full price.

They are knowingly having us a pay for a service they know is inadequate, or is actually no service at all, Gucker said.

Birdsall, too, is exasperated at the red tape that accompanies each phone call and site visit.

Tech support is incompetent, but our local technicians are rock stars, she said. Welcome to the North Country.

CRISIS

Look around any municipal building and library in the region long enough and you ll notice a pattern. People sit on picnic tables, they linger in lobbies.

Shadows huddle in vehicles, the glows of their devices emanating wraith-like blue glows in the night. They re piggybacking off the free wi-fi, which local governments often provide as a community service. But they re not just tourists seeking to catch a quick signal before disappearing into the woods.

These leapfroggers are full-time residents. They re business owners trying to file mandated paperwork, kids completing homework assignments and just regular folks seeking a connection to the outside world. They re people like the Guckers and Birdsall, who frequently set up shop at the Keeseville Free Library to hop online. The lack of reliable internet service across large swaths of the North Country has presented one of New York s most vexing issues, one state, local and federal officials have described as a crisis, and one that is deepening as more and more aspects of life continue to shift online.

Coverage is patchwork across Essex County and the central Adirondacks. For service providers, extending networks to the so-called last mile is often an exercise in diminishing returns. Bereft of existing infrastructure and low home density, these are virtual no man s lands that make installation prohibitively expensive by pushing costs into the stratosphere.

Residents often rely on satellites or phone service when available. Others simply have nothing at all.

$500 MILLION

The state s solution is the New NY Broadband Program, an ambitious initiative that aims to leverage $500 million in capital funds from bank settlements with investment from the private sector. Hitching the program firmly to economic development, the state s goal is to provide high-speed internet to all Empire State residents by the end of 2018, a goal state officials say is unparalleled in the nation.

Access to high-speed Internet in New York shouldn t be limited by your zip code, said Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Broadband is crucial to driving growth, improving our education system and connecting New Yorkers to the 21st century global economy.

Just 28 percent of states have a budget to fund broadband initiatives, according to a report by Strategic Networks Group. New York ranks first in investment. It s been nearly 18 months since Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul announced the initiative1 in Lake Placid.

This is like being in the room when they decided to fund the Erie Canal, Hochul told a packed ballroom at the Lake Placid Visitors Bureau in January 2015, her first trip to the region after taking office.

The announcement was met with encomiums across the board. But the elation of local officials has curdled to frustration as questions have percolated to the surface and have reached a steady drip. Answers remain elusive, say lawmakers.

The money is being appropriated by the legislature, said Tom Scozzafava (R-Moriah) at the Essex County Board of Supervisors Finance Committee meeting last month. Why is it not being released?

We re a standstill, said Gerald Morrow (D-Chesterfield).

I will say this whole thing, this $500 million dollar project has been just a complete mess, said Shaun Gillilland (R-Willsboro). The whole thing, I think, is going to be one big rotten egg when it opens.

As the frustration has reached a fever pitch lawmakers even passed a symbolic resolution on Monday urging the state to release the funds a light has appeared at the end of the tunnel. The money is on its way.

The Broadband Program Office (BPO) is finalizing award details and expects to make an announcement, unveiling the results in the coming weeks, said a BPO official, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely about the program.

NO SERVICE AVAILABLE

While it s hard to pinpoint exactly how many local homes will benefit from the sweeping initiative, internet issues are endemic in Essex County, a county of 39,370. Seventeen percent of Essex County homes and businesses don t meet the state s minimum speed standards of 6 mbps download, according to the governor s office.

Four mbps, says the Federal Communications Commission, is the bare minimum required to stream HD-quality streaming film, conference or university lectures, a number that escalates with each successive user. Just eight percent have hit the 100 mbps benchmark. At least a half-dozen towns have struggled with even the most rudimentary access for years, including Willsboro, Essex, Chesterfield, Schroon, North Hudson, Minerva, Newcomb and Moriah.

Following last year s announcement, the state dispatched emissaries across the state to brief local businesses and officials on the program. Once the state legislature signed off, and the regional economic development councils chimed in, the BPO then opened up an application process in which the state s 70-or-so internet service providers engaged in a reverse auction to bid on projects, with priority given to those seeking the lowest amount of state investment. Although 100 mbps is the gold-plated ideal, the program s guidelines permitted applicants to submit projects offering speeds of a minimum of 25 mbps to the most underserved areas places like North Hudson, for instance, where the concept of streaming video, for many, is as alien as flying cars.

The exact level of private investment varies. While the BPO set a goal of soliciting matching funds for 50 percent of project costs, the office has not set a hard-and-fast matching requirement for individual projects, setting 20 percent as a minimum applicant match. The application deadline was April 15.

THE MODERN AGE

Gillilland, the Willsboro supervisor, represents a vast swath of forest and farmland along Lake Champlain that continues to be beset with access issues.

For the modern age, we re like serfs on an estate somewhere, Gillilland said. Like other local officials, the supervisor painted the lack of broadband service as an existential crisis, and one that is deepening as the federal government shifts more functions of daily life online, including applying for unemployment benefits, Medicaid and filing with the IRS. The area is so stricken, the state deployed former BPO Director David Salway directly to Willsboro last March2 to listen to complaints and brief local officials on the proposed program.

For instance, General Composites, the composite manufacturer, said the company would soon be placed at a competitive disadvantage due to the frequent service interruptions that would put work on a standstill. Since then, they ve spearheaded an effort to bring fiber into the facility, which has helped address those needs, said President Mimi Lane. Another local business, Pok-O-MacCready Camps, said existing satellite service was hampering recruitment and marketing efforts.

A third, a licensed engineer, said without a change, the survival of his business would be threatened. For tourism officials, Willsboro is also a textbook example of how reliable broadband service would act as a season extender, boosting stays from white-collar professionals who would continue to work remotely from the vacation destination if only they had the opportunity to do so. Since that meeting, the situation has only deteriorated, as rogue signals from FM radio stations have disrupted operations offered by another small-scale provider.

While the operator, who serves 70 clients, has rigged up a temporary structure, a crowdfunding campaign3 is underway to erect a permanent solution. Gillilland likened the infrastructure issues to the Depression, when utility companies were scrambling to electrify rural areas.

It was a hodge-podge, he said.

APPLICATION FRUSTRATION

During the grant application process, providers stitched together possible coverage areas using maps provided by the U.S. Census Department. But Gillilland said the data on those maps is dead wrong, misrepresenting areas as being served, when they are actually offline.

As such, the lawmaker fears entire neighborhoods will be left out of the imminent round of funding, including some 400 residences and businesses in Willsboro and neighboring Essex.

We on the ground know who is served and unserved, said Gillilland. I see we re going to have a problem here because bids are going out in rural areas that are untrue it s absolutely, 100 percent wrong. Gillilland, who noted his own residence is mistakenly designated as served, said he was rebuffed when he tried presenting this information to the BPO. The agency, he said, also hasn t been forthcoming on which companies put out bids in his area, information the supervisor said is critical to formulating a backup plan in the event these areas are passed over during this round of funding.

Instead, Gillilland said he was promised an invitation to the announcement ceremony within the next six weeks.

We are desperately trying to find out results of those bids, Gillilland said. This is all being done in the dark. And, Gillilland continued: It has been just a complete mess. It s been extremely poorly managed, the public relations part has been terrible.

BETTER SOLUTION

Daniel MacEntee, a spokesman for state Sen. Betty Little (R-Queensbury), said the while the senator was very supportive of the broadband initiative, she agreed that reliance on U.S. census maps has posed a dilemma.

If the criteria is based on census blocks, it can be somewhat misleading, MacEntee said. If one household is served, then the entire census block is being seen as served. Little, said MacEntee, has been an advocate of using street addresses to make those determinations.

It s much preferable to be as granular as possible, MacEntee said.

The BPO agrees their usage in the grant program can be an imperfect science.

Census blocks are utilized by the FCC and are considered the most authoritative source, said the BPO official. However, given the limitations associated with a one served, all served approach, we are moving away from their usage in Phase 2. Following this fall s announcements, that second-phase, which would cover areas left out of the first round, will be launched simultaneously, said Jeffery Nordhaus, EVP of Broadband & Innovation at Empire State Development.

On behalf of the BPO, we are looking forward to unveiling the New NY Broadband Program s first awards and launching Phase 2 simultaneously, Nordhaus said.

TRACKING CURRENT PROJECTS

The program isn t the first state-sponsored effort to wire the state s most remote areas. In 2013, the state awarded $70 million in grants as part of the Connect NY Broadband Program.

Slic Network Solutions, a Nicholville-based provider, was awarded $14 million for seven projects in Hamilton, St. Lawrence and Essex counties. While the company has made headway on several of those projects, including Long Lake, where homes are now being wired with fiber optic cable, progress has been stalled on others.

A $2.3 million project in Schroon, for instance, stands to benefit some 500 homes, or about 30 percent of the town s year-round population. But despite the state BPO fully disbursing the grant funds, work has been stalled until Slic can obtain the infusion of private investment capital necessary to move forward.

Funding remains on track and moving forward as planned, Slic President Phil Wagschal told the Sun on Monday. We are going to be updating the Schroon Lake broadband committee as part of our regular communications with the community. Earlier this summer, Slic officials, including VP Mark Cornett, said funding is imminent. 4

The delay, which has upset residents, has led Gillilland and that town s supervisor, Mike Marnell, to ponder what mechanisms, if any, would be implemented by the state in the future to safeguard municipalities against repeat occurrences.

They blame the state, but you ve got to produce the purse, Marnell said.

The BPO said they re working closely with Slic to ensure their adherence to designated timelines.

As we remain fully caught up on all reimbursements that have been submitted, we continue to work closely with Slic to ensure that critical broadband services are provided to these communities, the BPO official said. In the meantime, we are dramatically expanding the state s commitment to broadband and funding additional companies in all regions of New York State.

TIME WARNER CABLE-CHARTER MERGER

The New NY Broadband Program dovetails with another major shift in the telecommunications industry, the Time Warner Cable-Charter merger, which was approved by the state Public Service Commission in January and one that local lawmakers are still struggling to decipher. As part of the $70 billion merger, the state required what is now the nation s second-largest cable provider to improve broadband access for rural areas and for low-income customers within the next four years. This amounts to expanding their network to include another 145,000 households across the state, a requirement that comes with a $300 million price tag.

An additional $50 million has been earmarked to reduce customer service complaints. The stipulations also require the provider to boost speeds to 100 mbps by 2018, and 300 mbps by the following year (that s six times the highest limit provided by that agency north of New York City). In total, the merger provides the state with approximately $1.1 billion in direct investment and consumer benefits, according to the governor s office.

Twenty-five percent of the project must be completed within a year, said the PSC. In theory, that s all good news for Time Warner customers in the North Country, meaning that franchise areas that are either underserved by a third-party provider (or totally unserved) are eligible for that mandated expansion, including about 90 last-mile homes in west Moriah. But the exact details remain elusive.

Prior to the merger, Moriah was in the process of negotiating a franchise agreement with Time Warner to provide the service, Scozzafava said, a project that clocked in at $248,063 (as of October 2015). But half of that money, about $124,000, is hanging in the balance, the supervisor said. Scozzafava admitted he remained unclear if funds had been earmarked from the New NY Broadband Program or as part of the merger agreement plan, which was submitted July 5, and was required to provide a demarcation of the specific areas that would benefit.

But, he said, communication has been problematic since the merger. All of his contacts were wiped out with the Charter takeover, leaving what he said were just three government affairs reps for the entire state. His constituents are growing impatient.

None of this construction is being done because the state has not released the money, Scozzafava said.

It s like living in a third world country.

Chesterfield is caught in a similar stasis, said Morrow, the supervisor. Homes along Shunpike Road and Port Douglas Road, for instance, would stand to benefit. But, said Morrow of Charter, They re dragging their feet putting the plan together.

According to the PSC, the filing has no impact on the provision of broadband by other local service providers, who are free to build and offer service to customers in these areas. Morrow disputed this: local companies are unwilling to move forward until they see how many homes are among the 145,000 as part of the territorial expansion, he said.

They don t want to get in trouble for violating the franchise agreement, Morrow said. MacEntee, the senator s spokesman, acknowledged details for how the two programs would interplay remained unclear.

“There are more details to learn where Time Warner Cable and Charter will provide the service,” MacEntee said.

Furthermore, he added, installation isn t a panacea:

Even after the state grant funds have been disbursed, and networks have been constructed, adoption rates can be low, posing an additional challenge for providers who now need to start creating revenue to offset the investment.

THE FUTURE

While Gillilland admitted smaller local companies may piggyback from fiber deployed by the larger providers who are awarded the grants, he retained a gloomy outlook:

People may very well possibly never get broadband service, because the hardest part is the last mile it s tough to develop a business model. Nordhaus expressed confidence in the state s efforts.

New York State was built on innovation and forward thinking, and the New NY Broadband Program is the latest undertaking to leave its mark as a trailblazing, first-in-the-nation initiative, he said. Under Gov. Cuomo s leadership, businesses and communities in every corner of the state will soon be able to access the high-speed connectivity required to meet the demands of a modern economy. Back in Chesterfield, the roar of the Adirondack Northway can still be heard behind the pines.

Frontier Communications told the Sun they re unaware of any widespread or consistent problems in the area. But, a representative noted, the speed a customer receives is dependent on distance from a customer s residence to their switching equipment, as well as other variables, including the number of household members using the service and their applications. Keeping up with demand is a never-ending challenge, said the rep, and marketing efforts are focused on areas where the company has completed network upgrades.

Frontier crossed their fingers and put in a grant to the New NY Broadband Program.

However, based on the state s criteria, the Chesterfield area was not eligible for Phase 1 of the NY State Broadband Program, the representative said. The state has not released eligible census blocks for future phases of the program at this time. Gucker remarked at the strands of fiber running alongside the major thoroughfare, which runs all the way to New York City.

It seems like we should have internet in this day and age, she said.

References

  1. ^ announced the initiative (www.suncommunitynews.com)
  2. ^ last March (www.suncommunitynews.com)
  3. ^ crowdfunding campaign (www.suncommunitynews.com)
  4. ^ funding is imminent. (www.suncommunitynews.com)

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