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Foss: Progress on rural broadband access, but some gaps

Foss: Progress on rural broadband access, but some gaps

Foss: Progress on rural broadband access, but some gaps
Annabel Felton is still waiting for broadband access at her home on Creek Road in Duanesburg.
Photographer: PETER R. BARBER

Should Annabel Felton ever get broadband Internet at her home, it will be too late for her daughters, who are both in college. 

But it won't be too late for her, or her husband. 

And someday she might want to sell her home, perhaps to a young family. And that young family, she tells me, will almost certainly expect high-speed Internet service. 

"It wasn't until I had children in school that it became apparent that it was time to get broadband," Felton told me, when I visited her home on Creek Road in Duanesburg, a small town on the outskirts of Schenectady County. "It gets difficult when their classroom studies are online. ... We have kids who need to compete in a global economy."

Broadband is no longer a luxury, and hasn't been for some time -- it's a service that the vast majority of Americans have come to expect. 

But there are still places where people don't have access to it, especially in rural, less populated areas. Felton lives in one of those places, as do over 300 other Duanesburg residents. 

What struck me, when I drove out to her house, is that, while rural, it's hardly the end of the world. 

Located about a half hour from downtown Schenectady, it isn't particularly remote or isolated, and it seems for all the world like a place that ought to have all the modern conveniences that are a part of American life in 2019. 

Of course, broadband is more than just a modern convenience. 

It's a tool that's essential for work and learning, and communities with subpar service are suffering the consequences, lagging behind their better-connected peers in growth and economic development.  

"We're interested in building an economy that's a little more 21st century," Schoharie County Administrator Steven Wilson told me. "Broadband is necessary infrastructure." 

Matt Ossenfort, Montgomery County Executive, agreed, noting that some of the county's more rural communities, such as Charleston, have seen new homes go up despite a lack of broadband.

"The sooner broadband is available there, I think we'll see more of that," Ossenfort said. 

The Cuomo administration has made expanding broadband coverage to the entire state a priority, and I'm glad it did. 

But I also wonder about those places without good broadband service, and what it will take to get it to them. 

Four years ago, the governor launched the state's New NY Broadband Program, which committed $500 million in funding to the goal of building out broadband infrastructure to even the most rural corners of the state by the end of last year. 

The state missed that deadline, but officials say broadband coverage has expanded rapidly thanks to the program, from 70 percent of New Yorkers in 2015 to 98 percent today. 

The challenge lies in connecting that final 2 percent -- roughly 160,000 households, according to an article in Politico New York. 

When service is finally rolled out to those final homes, New York will "lead the nation as the first state to achieve total connectivity," Gov. Andrew Cuomo proclaimed last March.

And yet some households, such as Felton's, will still be left out in the cold, at least for the time being.  

The state grant funding was available to telecommunication companies, not municipalities. 

It's an arrangement that worked well in Schoharie County, where Middleburgh-based MidTel provides Internet service, but not in Duanesburg, where Charter Communications is the provider. 

MidTel applied for grant funding aggressively, receiving awards in all three rounds of funding for a total of $15 million, according to Jim Becker, the company's president. 

For MidTel, the state grants were a difference maker, Becker said, enabling the company to bring fiber-optic service to areas where it wouldn't have made any financial sense to build out otherwise. 

"The challenge is the return on investment," Becker explained. "A lot of the areas we serve have four, five, six homes a mile." 

In places that sparsely populated, it would ordinarily take between 18 and 20 years for MidTel to realize its return on investment, Becker said. The state funding reduces that substantially, to four to five years. 

"This helps us with the next 40 years of our business," Becker said. "Once a home has that level of service, it's not going to ever want to lose it. Their Internet needs will grow." 

"As a rural county, I think it's going to be a long time before we get to the point where every single house has the equivalent of (fiber optic)," Wilson, the Schoharie County Administrator, told me. "... There's still a lot of work to do, and it's difficult and expensive because we're spread out. But I feel pretty good for a rural county without a lot of resources." 

The final round of state broadband grants, awarded last March, will extend broadband service to over 20,000 Capital Region homes and businesses. 

Duanesburg had hoped Charter Communications would seek state funding to build out to homes that lack high-speed Internet service. 

But that never happened, and Charter has been embroiled in a high-profile battle with the Cuomo administration, which moved to kick the company out of the state last year for failing to expand broadband service to rural areas. 

That said, there have been some positive developments in Duanesburg. 

Last spring Verizon Communications secured about $2.6 million in state funding to bring speedy fiber optic service to over 200 residents in the town's northeastern corner.

Another positive step has been a $100,000 award from Schenectady County, which the town will use to dig trenches where broadband cables can be laid down. 

The hope is that a telecommunications company will be willing to provide high-speed Internet if they don't have to foot the cost of building the necessary infrastructure, Duanesburg Town Supervisor Roger Tidball told me. 

To Tidball, the recent flurry of broadband activity represents enormous progress after years of stasis. 

"Our goal is to have every home wired," Tidball said. "Within five years we're hoping for a 90 percent completion rate." 

Duanesburg's effort to get broadband is instructive, because it shows that the state's claims of 100 percent connectivity, or near 100 percent connectivity, are not entirely accurate. 

On the ground, things are more complicated. 

One of the things hurting Duanesburg has been the Federal Communication Commission's inaccurate broadband maps

These maps, from which the data used to make the state's broadband availability map is drawn, depict an entire Census block as having broadband if just one home in the block has it. 

If you look up Felton's address on the federal map, it appears to be served by Charter. But when you speak to her, you'll quickly learn that this is not the case. 

"No one in my Census block has Charter," Felton said. 

She accesses the Internet through cell phone hotspots, but the service is simply not adequate. It slows down at peak times and is insecure and expensive - too expensive for a family's modern Internet needs. 

Felton still has no idea when she'll get broadband at her house, although she's optimistic that the town's trenching project will result in her home getting high-speed Internet in the near future. 

It's a frustrating situation -- and a baffling one. 

Cuomo's broadband program has accomplished a lot, but there is clearly more to be done. 

Rural towns like Duanesburg will struggle to prosper so long as they lack this vital service.

And while it's great that so many more homes are wired, too many homes are still going without. 

Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at [email protected] Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper's.

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