Tonko listens to Westerlo’s broadband concerns amid fight for $1.7M

The Enterprise — Noah Zweifel

Westerlo Broadband Committee Chairwoman Dotty Verch, right, shows Congressman Paul Tonko a series of maps that show where fiber cables are installed.

WESTERLO — This rural Hilltown is inching closer to $1,687,500 in federal funding that it would use to expand broadband access, which is currently sparse. 

The money for the project will be packaged in the federal budget, but only if the request for funding made by Congressman Paul Tonko, a Democrat representing the Capital Region, is accepted by the House Committee on Appropriations.

The committee will review 10 funding requests from every member of the House of Representatives and weigh them according to need. The total amount of money that can be spent on these projects is capped at 1 percent of the budget’s discretionary spending amount.

Tonko’s office has said that, if the $1.7 million is secured, at least 900 more households, farms, and businesses in Westerlo would gain access to fiber-provided internet service.

To help make the case for Westerlo, Tonko visited with prominent community members at the town hall on June 4, and listened to what they had to say about the lack of internet access in the town, and how it impacts education, business, health, the town’s economy, and more. 

Only about 30 percent of the town’s approximately 3,300 residents have internet service, Supervisor Bill Bichteman said during the meeting. It’s a longstanding concern that took on a new urgency during the coronavirus pandemic, which forced people to self-isolate and do work, schooling, and almost everything else online. 

“Our town has, over a number of years … identified the fact that we have a problem with broadband services within the town,” Bichteman said. “The broadband committee works tirelessly to promote our best interests as a town, renewing some of our existing franchise agreements and moving forward with trying to encourage the existing cable companies to move further and deeper into our town. 

“It became apparent sometime down the road that, as hard as they tried, unless someone was to shower us with money to make this happen, these companies are profit-motivated and there’s no profit in running the cable up a long way to service one or two houses.”

Leonard Laub, a technologist and Westerlo resident who is a member of the town’s broadband committee, explained to Tonko that the scope of Westerlo’s project is fixed on expanding the broadband network, which would be the most substantial component of getting residents fully connected. 

“At this point, in the scope of this grant application, we’re just looking to run fiber everywhere,” Laub explained to Tonko during the roundtable discussion. “The connections from the fiber running down the road to the individual houses or businesses are not part of this, nor is any subsidy to anybody’s activity.”

Earlier this year, Bichteman told The Enterprise that the internet-service problem in Westerlo has two facets: access and affordability. 

The town’s new comprehensive plan draft, which includes survey responses from about 450 residents in the town, shows that 20 percent of those respondents could not afford internet services that are available to them. 

As the town seeks to address the problem of access with the funding that Tonko is pushing for, it’s also putting together another grant application for money that would help residents who have internet capabilities but can’t afford the service. 


A bare necessity

Tonko kicked off the Westerlo meeting by stating how important reliable internet access is in the modern era, and compared it to electricity, which itself used to be hard to come by in some remote stretches of the country.

“I harken back to the ’30s,” Tonko said, “when the Rural Electrification Act was brought about. President Roosevelt, when he went to Georgia for his treatments, would see outlandish lack of services, and he said that’s not America as we know it.

“So, today, the modern-day fight for utilities is broadband. Doctors need to read X-rays … and students shouldn’t be going to a library parking lot to do their homework, and businesses need to have access to modern-day technology.”

Tonko was referencing the concerns of some of those present at the meeting, like Amy Powarzynski and Maureen Sikule, of the Westerlo Library, which emitted Wi-Fi signals from its building out to the parking lot during the pandemic, at times creating an overflow of residents who were trying to cram into the limited space.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, it looked like a minivan drag-race in the parking lot,” town board member Matt Kryzak said of the crush of people using the library’s Wi-Fi. “People were competing for spots for parking, and it was like an unsafe intersection everywhere you went. You were trying to see around the corner, you couldn’t pull out, and you were going ‘Oh my God.’” 

Powarzysnki, the library’s director, explained how she herself had troubles with internet access at home, where her husband has been working remotely and her 16-year-old son was trying to attend school online.

“Usually there’s some point in the day, usually at 5 o’clock, when everything slows down because we have to work on our cell service, which is pretty expensive,” Powarzynski said. “And some bad weather can make it go kerflooey.”

At one point, Dotty Verch, who chairs the Westerlo Broadband Committee, showed Tonko a map that displayed orange lines where internet service provider Mid-Hudson had installed fiber cables for broadband, and pointed out the large swaths of white where residents have no access.

“One of these people is a cancer patient,” Verch said. “They’re home-ridden. They have no access to doctors … There’s kids who need to do school but they can’t do it remotely [at home], which is why they need to go to the library to do homework. 

“All the kids in this area,” she went on, “are students in the Berne-Knox-Westerlo district, and they have no access to the internet whatsoever. I think one lady said she has three boys at Berne-Knox-Westerlo, and she has a choice of paying her AT&T bill or her food bill.”

Bichteman explained that the town’s population has been stagnating because people are less and less likely to buy a home that doesn’t have internet capabilities. He said that, in the past, the population would fluctuate according to gas prices, since those who lived in Westerlo often commuted to the city of Albany or elsewhere outside of the town for work.

“But now there’s another dimension, which is broadband ...,” Bichteman said. “Broadband determines whether you’re going to sell your house or not. It determines whether someone will take a piece of property to develop. Even family members are moving away because they can’t stay here.”

Eric Hannay, president and chief executive officer of Westerlo’s largest business, Hannay Reels, said that, while his facility has internet capabilities and there had been few problems when some of his workers needed to telecommute during the pandemic, the implications of population loss are significant for his business.

“The majority of our workforce is from southern Albany County, Hilltowns, Schoharie County ...,” Hannay said. “There’s some drawbacks you have to consider if you’re going to live in a rural area. The retention of our workforce is going to depend on joining the 21st Century economy with broadband.”

Despite all these problems, Westerlo, and other rural towns, have run into trouble securing funds to address the need for internet because of the way service mapping is handled by those doling out grant money.

Hudson Valley Wireless General Manager Jason Guzzo explained to The Enterprise last year that, typically, service is mapped out at the census-block level, and that a census block is considered “served” if just one home in the area has internet access. 

While that may suffice in densely populated areas where census blocks are small and relatively uniform, the methodology fails when applied to rural census blocks, Guzzo said, which have a more radical geometry and can cover many miles. 

Compounding that issue is the theoretical availability of satellite internet, Laub explained to Tonko during the meeting, saying that the services leave a lot to be desired.

“They’re terrible,” Laub said of satellite connections. “They’re unreliable. Even in heavy rain they’re unreliable ... In attempts to get Westerlo qualified for various programs, we’ve run into the notion that because there’s satellite service available here that we’re served. But we’re not served. And all of the standards that are in the federal descriptions, and the state descriptions, for that matter, call for levels of performance that satellite cannot deliver. 

“Really the only thing that can deliver reliably is fiber,” Laub went on. “So we’re not being luxurious about this; we’re attempting to meet the standards of various governments that [define these] requirements.” 

A recent federal funding package provided Elon Musk’s space exploration and satellite company SpaceX — which is beginning to offer satellite internet through its Starlink branch — with $885 million to expand internet access across the country, including in the Hilltowns.

However, it’s unknown at this point whether connections will be reliable, and the price to sign up is calculated, now, at $600, with a $99-per-month subscription, which may exclude a large number of Hilltown residents who have no other options. 


Next steps

Part of the consideration of whether an organization like Westerlo deserves federal funding centers around its ability to realize a project and adhere to any other stipulations that the grant money rests on — all of which is naturally more difficult than coming up with a proposal. 

One such stipulation is that the town has to spend a certain amount of the money quickly, which Bichteman said would be no problem, as the town would pre-purchase the materials necessary for installing new fiber lines.

Of the broader application of funds, Laub said that the town is already working with internet service provider MIDTEL to come up with concrete plans for expanding the broadband network. 

“The basic idea,” Laub said, “is that we are already into the process of setting up, in detail, the terms of the logistics of where to build things, the terms the technology to be used, and the terms of the economics, so that we’re ready to apply the money.”

When asked about when the town would know if it’s receiving the funding and when that funding would come, Tonko said that it could feasibly be settled in the last quarter of 2021.

In the meantime, Tonko said, he’s been lobbying the cause with those who have influence over the fate of the 10 projects he’s picked, which in Westerlo’s case is Congressman Sanford Bishop, a Georgia Democrat who is a member of the House appropriations committee, and chairman of a subcommittee that focuses in part on rural development.

“So I’ve tried to identify the rural aspects with him,” Tonko said of Bishop, after explaining that Bishop represents a rural patch of Georgia. “A lot of this process is just starting, but I’ve jumped ahead and taken advantage of relationships and friendships to say, ‘These are the 10 [projects] I have, this is the one that’s coming before your subcommittee,’ to try and do the groundwork.”

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