Millions in state grants to fund broadband in Hilltowns

Enterprise file photo — Tim Tulloch

U’hai  looms over Berne, pictured before a communications tower was placed on top of the hill; the former town supervisor says such a tower could be equipped with a satellite dish to broadcast wireless internet, which an internet company said could be done as soon as next year.

HILLTOWNS — The Helderberg Hilltowns, with areas plagued by a lack of internet service, have received some of the highest amounts of grant money in the area for broadband expansion.

New York State’s New NY Broadband program awards grants to providers that will bring high-speed internet to unserved or underserved areas. An unserved area is one where internet download speed is less than 25 megabits per second; an underserved is one where download speeds are between 25 and 99 megabits per second.

Funds in this third and final round of awards has come from state grants, private investments, and from the federal Connect America Fund.

The town of Berne will have the largest amount in the county, with a state grant of $1,415,679 and a total investment of $1,854,997 to establish internet at 524 locations. Westerlo will have the most locations provided for in the grant — 1,156 — with $542,644 in state funding and $839,069 in total funds.

After the town of Colonie, Rensselaerville will have the third largest amount of state funds invested — $975,643 — and the second largest amount of funds in the county with a total of $1,340,013 invested at 431 locations. The town of Knox, while not being awarded as much as the other Hilltowns, received $114,804 in state grants for a total of $153,029 that will provide broadband to 120 locations.

Efforts to expand internet access to the rural Hilltowns have been ongoing for some time. Last March, in his State of the County Address, Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy announced that internet access would be expanded in Berne and Knox. McCoy, a Democrat, later told The Enterprise that the county was working with the company Hudson Valley Wireless to do this.

Hudson Valley Wireless uses microwaves to transmit wireless internet to different satellite dishes, eventually connecting with small dishes installed at homes or businesses. Kevin Crosier, a Democrat who had served as Berne’s supervisor until he was ousted last November by Republican Sean Lyons, said that he has been working with the county and Hudson Valley Wireless for the last few years in order to increase internet access in Berne.

Lyons could not be reached for comment.

“This will serve a huge portion of the town that’s not served currently … ,” said Crosier. “This is the quickest way to get internet access in the rural area.”

The former supervisor said that wider internet access would benefit local businesses as well as students who may not have internet at home to do homework.

“This is a big opportunity for Berne residents,” he said.

Jason Guzzo, the general manager of Hudson Valley Wireless, said that the company submitted for the broadband grant last August and was notified in January. The company is now submitting the final paperwork to continue, he said. Although the company had been awarded a Connect New York grant from the state in 2015, this is the first time Hudson Valley Wireless has received a grant through the New NY program.

Guzzo hopes to have all the infrastructure — which involves installing equipment on towers and telephone poles to broadcast the internet signal — in place by the end of the year, and to start making internet access available in 2019.

The wireless internet company serves Albany, Rensselaer, Saratoga, Washington, and parts of Warren counties. Guzzo says this grant will fund efforts focusing on rural areas that are underserved or unserved like the Hilltowns.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for New York State, for the underserved community,” he said.

Rensselaerville Supervisor Steven Pfleging, who began his term in January, said that the town has not been involved with obtaining the funds, but a few hundred homes will be receiving internet through the funding.

Hughes Network Systems, a satellite internet service, will be able to install internet services at 321 places, said Pfleging; the Middleburgh-based fiber-optic internet company Middleburgh Telephone Company, or Midtel, will be able to install at 110 places.

“I’m happy to hear that they’ll be bringing broadband access in our area … ,” said Pfleging.

In Westerlo, the Broadband Research Committee has been working for some time to expand internet access through cable service to areas in the town. After a 15-year contract with Mid-Hudson Cable expired in 2016, the committee worked to draw up a new contract that would expand access to an unserved section of Westerlo along routes 410 and 402.

Mid-Hudson Cable previously received funding from the state for broadband expansion, and had applied for a new grant last year that would let it offer 25 mbps download speed and 4 mbps upload speed for $60 a month in areas covered by the program. The company, which is based in Hudson and Catskill, covers parts of Rensselaerville, Westerlo, and Coeymans, as well as areas in Greene and Columbia County.

Last August, Broadband Research Committee members pressed the town board to approve a draft of the contract with the Mid-Hudson Cable and to ratify it before the Aug. 15 deadline for the state grant. In January, the town board approved the contract. Mid-Hudson appears on the list of Phase III awardees of the New NY grant as Mid-Hudson Data Corp, said Dotty Verch, chairwoman of the Broadband Research Committee. The company will be serving 15 Westerlo homes through the grant, she said.

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  • Westerlo Supervisor William Bichteman laid out a worst-case-scenario fiscal plan Tuesday that would see the 2021 tax levy increase anywhere from 10- to 15-percent. Bichteman stressed that the scenario was projected using “best-guess” budgeting based on a lack of information regarding sales-tax revenue from higher levels of government and that the probabilities are almost entirely unknown, but that he wants to start having the conversation before it’s too late.

  • Although the coronavirus has created a lapse in funding for Westerlo’s Comprehensive Plan Committee, Supervisor William Bichteman said that budget transfers will ensure that the $5,000 lost in grant money after the state retracted its offer will get to the committee, which will begin to hold meetings with the public next month, one way or another. 

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