FCC grants nearly $650K to internet provider who will expand Westerlo coverage

The Enterprise — Michael Koff
The tower in Berne, built as one of a series for emergency communication at the instigation of Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple, is now being used by Hudson Valley Wireless to bring internet to residences and businesses in the Helderbergs as part of a multi-year service expansion program that was completed last April.

WESTERLO — Mid-Hudson Data Corp, an internet service provider based in Catskill, New York, now has an additional $640,296 from the Federal Communications Commission, which it will use to expand coverage in Westerlo and other communities around the state, according to a release from Congressman Paul Tonko. 

Mid-Hudson Data Corp could not immediately be reached for comment. 

Internet access in the Hilltowns has long been a concern, as it is in many rural areas, but the need for connectivity has never been higher than during the coronavirus pandemic, which has driven work, school, and socializing to digital forums. 

Jason Guzzo, general manager of Hudson Valley Wireless, another provider in the Capital Region, told The Enterprise prior to Tonko’s announcement that government subsidization would be critical to the goal of total coverage in an area that has so many rural communities, where the profitability of internet service generally fails to meet sustainability models. 

“Many of the rural communities would already have broadband access if it were profitable for a provider to deploy service,” Guzzo explained. “Rural communities are typically high-cost and low-density.”

It’s usually that last 1 or 2 percent of households, Guzzo said, “that could be 70, 80-percent of the cost of building the network. Those last few households are very difficult to cover.” 

Locally, Hudson Valley Wireless and other providers can find ways to expand coverage cheaply by partnering with public entities, as Hudson Valley Wireless has done with Albany County, to secure “vertical real estate,” or pre-existing cell towers on which to hang antennas. 

Hudson Valley Wireless recently announced the completion of a multi-year program that saw enhanced coverage following the application of the sheriff’s cell tower in Berne for commercial broadband, along with new towers around the region that help fill in some of the Hilltowns’ coverage gaps. 

But for all that partnership and effort, government funding is still a necessity, and there are obstacles in obtaining that, Guzzo said, both institutionally and logistically. 

One problem is the way the government goes about data collection and uses it to determine appropriations. 

Guzzo said that all telecommunications service providers must fill out a form that “illustrates where providers deploy broadband services and speeds available to consumers and businesses.” 

But that report, called Form 477, is largely generalized to the point of being ineffective, except to identify large swaths of areas that have zero coverage, leaving out spotty areas like the Hilltowns. 

“The problem with the current reporting,” Guzzo said, “is if one household in an area could potentially have service, as indicated by those reports, that typically deems every other household to be looked at as being served, and we all know that that’s not the case.”

Compounding the issue, Guzzo explained, is that the reporting is done “on the honor system,” which creates room for errors, and regions are portioned out using the United States Census Bureau’s format, where blocks of land in cities are often more congruent than in rural areas, where Guzzo said that portions “can be all different shapes and sizes, and the contours vary greatly.” 

Also, the companies only report advertised speeds, as opposed to real speeds, which can be affected by a number of variables, including how many people are relying on the network at a time to support applications of varying bandwidth. During the pandemic, Guzzo said, that load has often been much greater than normal.

This means that, if one family in a rural census block is able to receive internet service, that area is considered served, even if that family isn’t able to use the internet for its schooling and work needs, and that area will be passed over for funding in favor of a completely unserved block. 

Guzzo said that the government is working on updating data collection so that it takes a more granular approach, which he thinks may be complete as soon as this year. But, he said, it could be another four years before that data turns into dollars by shaping congressional appropriation plans. 

 

Local knowledge

Meanwhile, Hudson Valley Wireless is working on more closely identifying its own underserved areas.

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

Guzzo said that partnerships with Google and Microsoft provide the benefits of artificial intelligence and crowdsourcing, which can help fine tune coverage maps, but that “there’s no substitute for local knowledge.”

“If we get phone calls from the constituents saying that they need service,” Guzzo said, “that’s usually a good indicator that broadband’s not available in certain areas. And if that’s the case, we’ve had more success collecting forms from local supervisors and people calling us directly, and if we see enough dots on our map where we need to build a network, we’ll try and come up with a plan to cover more people.” 

 

Schooling in underserved areas

 In April, about a month after schools closed down statewide, Berne-Knox-Westerlo Superintendent Timothy Mundell said at a county press briefing that 30-percent of the school’s students didn’t have internet access. The district serves 731 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, according to the State Education Department.

When asked last week how those students cope, Mundell declined to comment. 

Four hotspots have been available around the Hilltowns, providing internet access in public locations, like the parking lots of the BKW elementary school and the Berne Public Library, for a total of six hours a day, seven days a week.

Hudson Valley Wireless has partnered with BKW to identify students and bridge the “homework gap,” in reference to a growing phenomenon where students from poor households or who live in underserved areas are unable to complete their schoolwork which, even before the coronavirus, has become increasingly dependent on digital technologies. 

Pew Research data indicates that nearly 60 percent of eighth-grade students across the country need to use the internet to complete their homework at least most days of the week. 

“Hudson Valley Wireless focused on ‘homework gap,’ and our partners at Albany County are helping to subsidize the installation cost for unserved students in the Berne-Knox-Westerlo school district,” Guzzo said. 

Once the students are identified, Guzzo said, free installation and three months of free service will be available to qualifying households. 

Low-income families are the most likely to have students struggling to complete their homework, that same Pew data shows. Nearly one quarter of teens who live in a household with an annual of income of less than $30,000 are unable to complete their homework online, compared to 9 percent of teens from households with an annual income of at least $75,000. 

“There’s also some students … in need of financial assistance,” Guzzo said, “and we’re offering an additional month of free service, and a 25-percent reduction on their bill moving forward just to make it more affordable for those homes that can’t really afford to pay for the service.” 

More Hilltowns News

  • The Berne Town Hall.

    Berne Planning Board member Lawrence Zimmerman resigned in November over frustrations that the town is not following the guidance of its own comprehensive plan. Former town board member Dawn Jordan says that ideology and partisanship got in the way, along with some more proasic — and even healthy — obstacles.

  • The troupe is putting on a rendition of A Christmas Carol that’s staged as a fictional live radio show. The aptly-named play, “A Christmas Carol: A Live Radio Show,” was adapted from the Charles Dickens novella by playwright Joe Landry, with music by Kevin Connors.

  • The bridge, on State Route 156 in Berne, was closed for about two months for repairs, forcing travelers to take a 5.2-mile detour. 

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