Hilltown internet coverage is expanding, but affordability is still a concern

Enterprise file photo — Michael Koff

Internet access is especially important while some kids learn remotely during the coronavirus pandemic. 

HILLTOWNS — Some Hilltown residents are now able to sign up for satellite internet service provided by the SpaceX program Starlink as part of a massive service expansion subsidized by the Federal Communications Commission, but steep sign-up costs and monthly subscription fees may prevent people from getting online, highlighting the importance of affordability.

Coverage is primarily available in Rensselaerville, while coverage in Knox, Westerlo, and Berne is projected to be available by the end of the year, according to the Starlink website.

SpaceX was founded by Elon Musk in 2002 with the goal of reducing the cost of space transportation so that Mars can be colonized. In 2015, Musk announced the development of Starlink, a satellite constellation, to provide broadband internet service.

When The Enterprise first reported on the FCC’s subsidization program in December, all that was known was that companies who secured contracts with the FCC had 10 years to expand their services to areas deemed underserved, or else they would lose the portion of the $20 billion they received and have to pay back whatever amount they used.

 

Local frustrations

These first steps toward service expansion come as frustrations mount in the Hilltowns over the failure of higher levels of government to establish the necessary infrastructure. Internet connection has become more crucial as the COVID-19 pandemic forces some families to work, learn, and attend local government meetings from home. 

At its Jan. 20 meeting, the Berne Town Board authorized Supervisor Sean Lyons to write a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo demanding that the state follow up on promises to enhance rural broadband access. 

Lyons suggests in his letter that internet access will be important in combating stereotypes he says have been associated with the Hilltowns since at least his childhood, when his father worked under supervisors at General Electric who claimed employees from the remote Hilltowns were “not suited for professional work” and instead “just laborers.”

“Every day our youth fall behind the rest of the ‘connected world,’” Lyons writes in the letter. “Will our youth be labeled ‘for labor only’ without the proper tools and access to make them competitive? The [Berne-Knox-Westerlo] school district has been deploying buses with Wi-Fi hot spots to multiple locations in the Hilltowns to allow our children to connect with their classes and teachers.”

The state began subsidizing internet service expansion in 2015, when it launched a three-phase “Broadband for All” program that would provide nearly $750 million in private and public funds dedicated to coverage. 

Lyons told The Enterprise this week that his home on Bradt Hollow Road was meant to be covered in the third phase of the program, the awards for which were announced in 2018, but that he’s yet to see any benefit nearly three years later, even though fiber-optic cables were installed last summer.

“They call it a success,” Lyons said in an email. “I say not yet. I live in one of the most rural parts of Berne and Albany county and have had fiber optic broadband service hanging on the pole outside my house since early summer as part of this phase 3, and am still not even being offered connection plans?”

In Westerlo, Planning Board Chairwoman Dotty Verch, who also heads the town’s broadband committee, said at a town board meeting earlier this month that she’d been in contact with state Senator Michelle Hinchey’s office and indicated that Hinchey would “be getting involved” in expansion efforts, though Westerlo Supervisor Bill Bichteman voiced some pessimism about the chance of any meaningful progress.

“What I’m concerned about,” Bichteman said, “is that we’re going to get the token response, and what’ll end up happening is the next populated area will be a short segment … and it’s never going to be enough to do the total amount we have to do. Anything is better than nothing, but it just seems they don’t really want to attack it like a real problem.”

“Join my frustration, Bill,” Verch replied. 

Part of the problem in getting money for broadband coverage lies in the way the government measures access, according to Hudson Valley Wireless General Manager Jason Guzzo, who explained to The Enterprise last year that existing coverage is measured by census block. But because census blocks in rural areas are relatively large, whole swaths of a town can be considered covered even if only one household in that block has internet capabilities.

“Identifying partially served census blocks is very difficult without local knowledge of the community,” Guzzo said at the time. “Some homes with long driveways may have cable passing by the mailbox and can’t afford to extend service to the house.”  

In Rensselaerville, the town’s broadband committee developed a survey with the help of Boston University to better locate coverage gaps, though the committee has decided to prioritize lobbying on already-available data, which indicates that more than half of the parcels in Rensselaerville are without access, committee Chairman Hans Soderquist told The Enterprise in January.

 

Affordability

While SpaceX appears on track to address issues of coverage, affordability is still an obstacle in the Hilltowns, where the poverty rate hovers around 6 percent, according to census data.

According to pre-pandemic 2018 data from the State Education Department, 32 percent of BKW students are eligible for free lunches and 6 percent are eligible for reduced-price lunches, an indicator of poverty.

To use Starlink’s satellite service, residents will have to front $500 for the necessary hardware, as well as shipping and tax, which bring the total sign-up cost to nearly $600. Service will cost $99 per month, which is nearly twice as expensive as the cheapest rate advertised by Hudson Valley Wireless.

On Jan. 12, Cuomo announced his intent to propose legislation that would require internet service providers to supply connection to low-income families for $15 per month. However, Cuomo failed to sign legislation state lawmakers passed that would study and map the current state of internet affordability in the state, claiming that the $3 million cost of the project wasn’t covered in the 2021 budget although he added it would be part of budget discussions.

 

E-Rate

Internet affordability — at least for those who teach or are in school — is also a focus of FCC Acting Chair Jessica Rosenworcel, who is considering an expansion of the commission’s E-Rate program

The E-Rate program currently “makes telecommunications and information services more affordable for schools and libraries,” according to the FCC website, but some lawmakers have called on the commission to include residential offerings in the program.

Last March, before Rosenworcel was acting chair, she indicated support for E-Rate expansion in a Verge op-ed.

“With schools closing and learning migrating online,” Rosenworcel wrote, “this is the right moment to adjust FCC rules to expand how we think about internet access and the traditional classroom.”

When asked last month whether he felt it was affordability or infrastructure that prevented Rensselaerville residents from securing access, Soderquist said that while coverage is a massive issue, “affordability is absolutely a concern not solved merely by improving coverage.”

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