Broadband access tops the list of existential issues facing the North Country. While an entire generation has now been weaned on lightning-quick internet, many people in the state’s most remote region have never known anything but spotty satellite or dial-up service. As one North Hudson resident put it: “When we talk about streaming, we have to go outside and look at one.”
Some homes and businesses have nothing at all.
The state Broadband Program Office continues to make progress on their initiative to fully provide the state with high-speed internet by the end of 2018, leveraging $500 million in state investment with private funds. The final funds, augmented with $170 million in federal monies, will be soon be allocated to mop up the remaining areas — including our North Country communities. But as the deadline nears, the process has become bitter and contentious as local officials grind it out with the state.
Skirmishes have erupted across the region, from Dannemora, Saranac and Bellmont near the Canadian border to Willsboro and much of southern Essex County. While problems with a slow grant reimbursement process and flakey providers appear to have been licked, there remains a very real concern among local officials that many areas may ultimately be excluded from the final round of grants. Here’s why:
The U.S. Census Bureau maps used by the state to determine which areas have internet service are faulty, and falsely illustrate many communities as being wired when they are not.
As such, local representatives fear these places may be left out when bidders convene at the final auction this summer. While exact coverage details are difficult to pin down, nearly two-thirds of homes in Clinton, Essex and Franklin counties, according to the state BPO, fall under the 100 megabytes per second threshold experts say is critical to economic development. Keep in mind internet speed is context sensitive. That number can vary wildly from locales with simply sluggish internet to those with no service at all — the difference between a decade-old Toyota Camry and a broken big wheel.
While the state reassures local leaders that all areas will be eventually be included, local officials are not convinced. How can they be? The state has not definitively illustrated how these oversights will be corrected.
As a Hail Mary, Albany has their fingers crossed that Charter Communications will swoop in to mop up the straggling areas as part of the conditions of their merger agreement with Time Warner. The promise seems reassuring, but it’s problematic. Local officials don’t have access to Charter’s current service area, which means they cannot stitch together maps of the “last mile” homes in their communities that would be served under the potential expansions.
Not only is there a lack of answers to give to their constituents, but other providers who may want to enter the market are hamstrung because they don’t want to move into a competitor’s franchise area and awaken a sleeping giant. Even if Charter did enter those markets, there’s the complaint New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman filed in February. Schneiderman claimed the provider’s long-term business plan is “built on deceit” and defrauded customers by falsely advertising broadband speeds and provided customers with “deficient equipment and a network that it knew were incapable of reliably delivering the promised speeds.”
As such, localities are stuck in a holding pattern.
Best case scenario: A local provider might bid on the parcels — provided the mapping problems are fixed. If not, the next best option is that a telecommunications giant under a cloud of state suspicion will provide overpriced service that may not even work because they’re selling modems that are literally incapable of delivering the advertised speeds. As these depressing realities begin to fall into place, local officials have taken the gloves off and are punching back.
Some criticism towards the state is warranted, much of it is not. The state has as much of an incentive to succeed as the localities. And by some metrics, the effort is already a success: The program has wired some of the state’s trickiest areas — including parts of Hamilton County, which doesn’t even have a traffic light.
Naturally in such a groundbreaking effort, there will be bumps along the way. To smooth over the tensions, the state has asked localities to engage in their own mapping efforts and develop reports detailing the true situations on the ground. Throwing the ball back in their court is a good idea. But in reality, these localities don’t have the resources to engage in comprehensive mapping efforts so late in the game.
Furthermore, they have argued that it isn’t their job. We agree. The state should have done this years ago. But localities also need to do more than counterpunch.
A better idea for local governments is to form a regional broadband task force. Doing so will not only make it easier to diagnose problems and flaws in the grant process, but also make the state and providers more accountable as we enter the endgame. Local officials should be the first to break the stalemate. And they can do so by continuing to publicly hold the state accountable — but also pairing it with action. We understand localities are frustrated.
But they need to do more than lob bombs. And the state, for their part, needs to do more than issue platitudes.
The Sun Community News Editorial Board is comprised of Dan Alexander, John Gereau and Pete DeMola. We want to hear from you.
Drop us a line on our Facebook page, or follow us on Twitter, to share your thoughts.
Urban fibre optic ISP Hyperoptic has today reached yet another social housing agreement, which means that “thousands” of homes in Thurrock (Essex) will soon gain access to their ultrafast 1Gbps capable FTTP/B based broadband network. A special ?9 a month 5Mbps option will also be offered. The new service will initially be made available to 1,700 tenants across 12 of the council’s developments (see below), with the first installation work expected to start during this summer 2017 (prioritised by resident demand).
The 12 Buildings
* Arthur Toft, George Crooks and Lionel Oxley House
* Bevan and Morrison House
* Brisbane, Freemantle and Tasmania House
* Butler, Davall and Greenwood House
* Chieftan Drive
* Clayburn Gardens
* Cranell Green
* George Tilbury, Gooderham and Poole House
* Keir Hardie House
* Marine and River Court
* Perth House
* Seabrooke Rise
Hyperoptic typically offers a choice of three premium packages (20Mbps, 100Mbps and 1Gbps), although in this instance they’ve also designed a bespoke entry-level product (Fibre Light) specifically for Thurrock Council’s residents. The package costs just ?9 per month for a standalone 5Mbps broadband service and that’s just about the cheapest fixed line broadband service we’ve ever seen (except it’s only available to a tiny number of people).
Steve Holford, Hyperoptic’s Chief Customer Officer, said: “For digital inclusion programmes to succeed the priority must be the provision of ultrafast, reliable and affordable broadband – unfettered Internet connectivity removes barriers and enables limitless possibilities.
Our full fibre connectivity is world-class and the experience is second-to-none. Working with Councils to give their social housing tenants the UK’s best Internet experience is a strategic priority for us – we are pioneering the shift to Gigabit Britain and the public sector has a huge role to play in making this happen as soon as possible.”
Cllr Shane Hebb, Finance and Legal at Thurrock Council, said: “We are very pleased to be teaming up with Hyperoptic to help every resident in council accommodation have the same access the fastest broadband speed available in the UK today, as those living in private properties.
The Council is neither financially up nor down through this work, but it has supported Hyperoptic develop an affordable package to areas which are highly populated in a bid to keep hundreds of Thurrock residents better connected.”
All of this will help to support Hyperoptic’s goal of extending the reach of their network to over 500,000 UK “homes” by the end of
2019. The ISP tends to focus most of their deployments on big office blocks and large apartment buildings (i.e. Multi-Dwelling-Units with at least 50 units), although they are clearly branching out a bit.
Customers can choose from either a broadband and phone bundle or a standlone broadband-only service on a 12 month contract (attracts no connection fee). You can also get a “no contract” option of both but that attracts a one-off connection fee of ?40 and the monthly price is higher. All of the packages include unlimited usage, 24/7 support, an included wireless router and a dynamic IP address (CGNAT) or add ?5 extra per month for a Static IP instead.
Bundles (first 3 months free)
20Mb Fibre Broadband & Phone
Price: ?25 a month 100Mb Fibre Broadband & Phone
Price: ?38 a month 1Gb Fibre Broadband & Phone
Price: ?63 a month
Standalone (first 3 months free) 20Mb Fibre Broadband Only
Price: ?22 a month 100Mb Fibre Broadband Only
Price: ?35 a month
1Gb Fibre Broadband Only
Price: ?60 a month
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Computers and brains already talk to each other daily in high-tech labs – and they do it better and better. For example, disabled people can now learn to govern robotic limbs by the sheer power of their mind. The hope is that we may one day be able to operate spaceships with our thoughts, upload our brains to computers and, ultimately, create cyborgs. 
Now Elon Musk is joining the race. The CEO of Tesla and SpaceX has acquired Neuralink, a company aiming to establish a direct link between the mind and the computer. Musk has already shown how expensive space technology can be run as a private enterprise.
But just how feasible is his latest endeavour? Neurotechnology was born in the 1970s when Jaques Vidal proposed that electroencephalography (EEG), which tracks and records brain-wave patterns via sensors placed on the scalp (electrodes), could be used to create systems that allow people to control external devices directly with their mind. The idea was to use computer algorithms to transform the recorded EEG signals into commands.
Since then, interest in the idea has been growing rapidly. Indeed, these “brain-computer interfaces” have driven a revolution in the area of assistive technologies – letting people with quadriplegia feed themselves and even walk again. In the past few years, major investments in brain research from the US (the BRAIN initiative) and the EU (the Human Brain project) have further advanced research on them.
This has pushed applications of this technology into the area of “human augmentation” – using the technology to improve our cognition and other abilities. The combination of humans and technology could be more powerful than artificial intelligence. For example, when we make decisions based on a combination of perception and reasoning, neurotechnologies could be used to augment our perception.
This could help us in situations such when seeing a very blurry image from a security camera and having to decide whether to intervene or not. Despite investments, the transition from using the technology in research labs to everyday life is still slow. The EEG hardware is totally safe for the user, but records very noisy signals.
Also, research labs have been mainly focused on using it to understand the brain and to propose innovative applications without any follow-up in commercial products. Other very promising initiatives, such as using commercial EEG systems to let people drive a car with their thoughts, have remained isolated. To try to overcome some of these limitations, several major companies have recently announced investments in research into brain-computer interfaces.
Bryan Johnson from human intelligence company Kernel recently acquired the MIT spin-off firm KRS, which is promising to make a data-driven revolution in understanding neurodegenerative diseases. Facebook is hiring a brain-computer interface engineer to work in its secretive hardware division, Building 8.
Pie in the sky?
Musk’s company is the latest. Its “neural lace” technology involves implanting electrodes in the brain to measure signals.
This would allow getting neural signals of much better quality than EEG – but it requires surgery. The project is still quite mysterious, although Musk has promised more details about it soon. Last year he stated that brain-computer interfaces are needed to confirm humans’ supremacy over artificial intelligence.
The project might seem ambitious, considering the limits of current technology. BCI spellers, which allow people to spell out words by looking at letters on a screen, are still much slower than traditional communication means, which Musk has already defined as “incredibly slow”. Similar speed limitations apply when using the brain to control a video game.
What we really need to make the technology reliable is more accurate, non-invasive techniques to measure brain activity. We also need to improve our understanding of the brain processes and how to decode them. Indeed, the idea of uploading or downloading our thoughts to or from a computer is simply impossible with our current knowledge of the human brain.
Many processes related to memory are still not understood by neuroscientists. The most optimistic forecasts say it will be at least 20 years before brain-computer interfaces will become technologies that we use in our daily lives. But that doesn’t make Musk’s initiative useless. The neural lace could initially be used to study the brain mechanisms and treat disorders such as epilepsy or major depression.
Together with electrodes for “reading” the brain activity, we could also implant electrodes for stimulating the brain – making it possible to detect and halt epileptic seizures. Brain-computer interfaces also face major ethical issues, especially those based on sensors surgically implanted in the brain. Most people are unlikely to want to have brain surgery – or be fit to have it – unless vital for their health.
This could significantly limit the number of potential users of Musk’s neural lace. Kernel’s original idea when acquiring the company KRS was also to implant electrodes in people’s brain, but the company changed its plans six months later due to difficulties related to invasive technologies. It’s easy for billionaires like Musk to be optimistic about the development of brain-computer interfaces.
But, rather than dismissing them, let’s remember that these visions are nevertheless crucial. They push the boundaries and help researchers set long-term goals. There’s every reason to be optimistic.
Neurotechnology started only started a few years after man first set foot on the moon – perhaps reflecting the need for a new big challenge after such a giant leap for mankind. And the brain-computer interfaces were indeed pure science fiction at the time. In 1965, the Sunday comic strip “Our New Age” stated:
By 2016, man’s intelligence and intellect will be able to be increased by drugs and by linking human brains directly to computers!
We are not there yet, but together we can win the challenge.
- ^ spaceships with our thoughts (neurogadget.net)
- ^ upload our brains to computers (theconversation.com)
- ^ is joining the race (www.theguardian.com)
- ^ Neuralink (neuralink.com)
- ^ Jaques Vidal (web.cs.ucla.edu)
- ^ allow people to control external devices directly with their mind (web.cs.ucla.edu)
- ^ letting people with quadriplegia feed themselves (www.youtube.com)
- ^ walk again (uk.businessinsider.com)
- ^ the BRAIN initiative (www.braininitiative.nih.gov)
- ^ the Human Brain project (www.humanbrainproject.eu)
- ^ more powerful than artificial intelligence (io9.gizmodo.com)
- ^ neurotechnologies could be used to augment our perception (ieeexplore.ieee.org)
- ^ innovative applications (www.weforum.org)
- ^ let people drive a car with their thoughts (popularelectronics.technicacuriosa.com)
- ^ Kernel (kernel.co)
- ^ recently acquired the MIT spin-off firm KRS (medium.com)
- ^ hiring a brain-computer interface engineer (www.facebook.com)
- ^ Building 8 (www.thedrum.com)
- ^ although Musk has promised (twitter.com)
- ^ he stated that brain-computer interfaces are needed (uk.businessinsider.com)
- ^ BCI spellers (popularelectronics.technicacuriosa.com)
- ^ has already defined (www.youtube.com)
- ^ brain to control a video game (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- ^ idea of uploading or downloading our thoughts (theconversation.com)
- ^ The most optimistic forecasts (io9.gizmodo.com)
- ^ treat disorders such as epilepsy or major depression (uk.businessinsider.com)
- ^ detect and halt epileptic seizures (www.scientificamerican.com)
- ^ major ethical issues (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- ^ implant electrodes in people’s brain (www.technologyreview.com)
- ^ the Sunday comic strip “Our New Age” stated (aa-nplus1.tumblr.com)
- ^ Davide Valeriani (theconversation.com)
- ^ University of Essex (theconversation.com)
- ^ The Conversation (theconversation.com)
- ^ original article (theconversation.com)
- ^ Elon Musk lays out SpaceX’s plan to send humans to Mars (mybroadband.co.za)