Kennedy: North Country lagging behind on broadband access, availability

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Last week, the North Country received a shoutout in a state report on the availability and accessibility of broadband service across New York.

It wasn’t laudatory, though: The vast stretch of northern New York known as the North Country ranked highest among 10 regions in the state in 2019 in both the percent of the population without broadband available (5%) and in the percent of households lacking high-speed internet access (19.3%).

“Availability” means a geographic area has been wired for the service. “Accessibility” indicates a household has a subscription with a provider offering broadband service, including cellphone plans.

The report, from Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, noted that while broadband availability has greatly improved across the state, accessibility still lags. Which is a problem in the COVID era, when reliable, high-speed internet “is a necessity to effectively work, communicate and learn,” especially from home, the report says.

But a bunch of doers in the North Country is looking to change their lot.

Under the guidance of EDC Warren County – the county’s economic development agency – and the Lake Champlain-Lake George Regional Planning Board, six counties and four service providers submitted a grant application to an arm of the U.S. Department of Commerce to extend broadband coverage.

The department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, or NTIA, which is focused largely on broadband expansion, announced the $288 million competitive grant program in May. The deadline for submissions was in mid-August, and by November grant recipients should be picked.

Dubbed the North Country Broadband Deployment Program, the local effort involves Clinton, Essex, Franklin, Hamilton, Warren and Washington counties, all in northeastern New York. The service providers are Charter/Spectrum, SLIC Network Solutions, Champlain Technology Group and Hudson Valley Wireless, which all operate there.

Their application seeks $20 million – the counties and providers will put in 10% of the total – to bring broadband to 3,000 unserved or underserved addresses. Jim Siplon, president of EDC Warren County, said the targeted homes and businesses are “spread unevenly” across the six counties, as determined by greatest need.

The money will go toward building out the service infrastructure. Siplon said the work must be completed in 2022, according to grant requirements.

The grant announcement attracted more than 230 applications seeking more than $2.5 billion, NTIA said.

Siplon described the local group’s submission as “compelling.” It recounts telehealth sessions that failed in the early days of the pandemic due to service shortfalls, and students forced to sit in the parking lots of public buildings to access Wi-Fi to download assignments when COVID closed schools.

And even if not successful, “the process will have been worth it,” he said.

That’s because a working group now meets weekly on broadband, and the multi-county format – “nobody’s ever tried” to bring the North Country together as a region, Siplon says – can be applied to other shared concerns, such as housing and transportation.

Marlene Kennedy is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in her column are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach her at [email protected]

Categories: Business

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