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State awards millions for rural broadband

The state this week awarded more than £12 million in grant money to help rural communities across the Capital Region expand broadband internet access. Millions of dollars were awarded in each county for projects in Fulton, Montgomery and Schoharie counties, and projects were also approved for rural parts of Schenectady and Saratoga counties, and for projects across the Adirondacks. But many rural areas will still remain unserved, as Duanesburg resident Annabel Felton noted. “I don’t have broadband and I don’t foresee getting it,” she said Friday.

The goal is to extend service speeds of 100 megabytes per second to areas whose population is sparse enough that commercial communications companies can’t justify the investment. “These awards will provide homes and businesses with access to the high-speed internet required to participate and succeed in the modern economy, and are a major step toward broadband for all in New York,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said this week in one of a series of regional funding announcements.

In all, £268 million in public and private money is to be invested under Round II of the New NY Broadband initiative, which Cuomo announced in 2015. The state money is being awarded to private broadband providers, which bid for the work and which are required to put in some of their private money. Local government officials representing rural areas commonly say that broadband access in their communities is essential to the economic future of their communities.

“The funding announced this week is welcome news, but I’ll continue to work with our local communities to ensure that high-speed broadband becomes a reality in more of our region,” said Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, whose district includes many of the communities that received grants. Schoharie County is receiving the most funding in the Capital Region, with five projects that have a total public investment of nearly £5.2 million. The projects are in Middleburgh, Fulton, Summit, Broome and Gilboa, and will bring service to more than 1,200 homes, businesses or institutions like schools and libraries.

In Montgomery County, more than £3 million in public money will be used to reach 800 customers in Florida, Glen, Charleston, Minden and St. Johnsville. In Fulton County, £2 million will be spent to reach 600 customers in the towns of Johnstown, Oppenheim, Ephratah and Bleeker.

In Schenectady County, three grants totaling £739,000 were awarded for projects that will reach 106 additional customers in Rotterdam, Princetown and Duanesburg. The grant award has left Felton, of Creek Road in western Duanesburg, frustrated, with nothing to show after two years of lobbying local, state and federal officials and cable company representatives concerning the need for high-speed internet in her corner of the community. The nearest cable line is 1.5 miles away, she said.

“It affects the value of my home, it affects the education of my children and it affects my community,” she said. Joe O’Neill, information technology coordinator for the Duanesburg Central School District, said only about half the district’s students have internet access at home — and the grant projects really won’t change that. Home internet access is becoming more important as school districts like Duanesburg plan to issue tablet devices to students, he noted.

“We don’t want to create a digital divide,” he said. “Right now the only high speed digital hot spots are at the school and at the public library.” Only one grant was awarded in Saratoga County. The town of Hadley is being awarded £379,127 to provide service to 200 homes.

State officials are preparing plans for a third round of funding, which will use £170 million in expansion funded recently awarded to New York state by the Federal Communications Commission. Separately from the state’s broadband initiative, Charter Communications will be required to extend service to 145,000 additional customers as a condition set by the state Public Service Commission for approval of Charter’s acquisition of Time Warner Cable. Charter does business as Charter Spectrum.

Charter has yet to release a detailed plan about where it will be extending service and when, though the extensions are to be completed by 2021.

Reach Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 395-3086, or @gazettesteve on Twitter.