Under deadline, Westerlo approves contract for public hearing

WESTERLO — After an hour-long debate last Tuesday, the Westerlo Town Board approved having its Broadband Research Committee go forward with presenting a contract to Mid-Hudson Cable. The 15-year contract would expand internet coverage further in Westerlo.

Some town board members were concerned about being locked in to a contract before knowing what it would entail, while committee members in the audience pressed for its approval under pressure to meet a deadline in a matter of weeks for a grant that would fund the cable company’s expansion.

Westerlo’s contract with Mid-Hudson Cable expired last year; the town could renew that contract and maintain its current coverage, should the new contract not be accepted.

The new additions to the contract include changing the requirements to install cable lines from 35 homes per cable mile (about a quarter of a strand-bearing mile) to 20 homes, Dorothy Verch, who chairs both the Westerlo Planning Board and the broadband committee, told The Enterprise this week. Mid-Hudson Cable must also meet with town representatives twice a year to address problems reported by residents, she said.

The contract would also include four phases of expansion, the first being on routes 402 and 410, which is in the process of being completed. According to Verch, the three following phases would bring internet to about 270 people.

Mid-Hudson Cable must now approve the draft and arrange a public hearing in Westerlo. The town board can then ratify the contract. This must all be done before the Aug. 15 deadline to apply for state funding, said Verch, in order to be eligible.

“They probably won’t be able to finance it,” she said, if the company misses the deadline.

“If we do miss that deadline, poof goes the money and with that, we may not have any negotiating tactics to get anywhere near that,” said Eric Markson, a committee member, at last week’s meeting. “This is kind of our last chance to be able to get that money.”

Three town board workshop meetings, apparently requested by the committee to discuss the contract with the town board, were cancelled within the last two months.

At last Tuesday’s meeting, town board member William Bichteman said he had some concerns with the contract drawn up by the committee.

He said that there were some aspects of the plan with which he disagreed with, suggesting different areas for broadband expansion as opposed to the areas included in the four-phase plan.

“We have sections of cable line that run now that have been populated past that point,” Bichteman said, suggesting running cable back in that direction rather than to new areas in order for it to cost less. Verch responded that the areas completed are based on requests from residents.

“What’s the impetus for them to apply for the money?” asked Bichteman, referring to Mid-Hudson Cable and the grant’s deadline. “Why can’t they apply for it anyway?”

“They won’t unless we come to terms,” said committee member Leonard Loeb. “They have told us that they’re not going to.”

Committee member Bob Wilcox noted that the company especially wants to have a franchise agreement with the town, and so is including the grant-funded expansion in the contract, which refers to cable television, but committee members said running cable lines to homes would also allow for internet hookups.

“Now, when there is cable, there is going to be internet,” said Markson. “They’re not making money on cable, they’re making all their money on broadband.”

“They are holding hostage any notion of expanding that cable plan until we negotiate some sort of franchise agreement,” added Loeb.

Councilman Joseph Boone asked how this contract would account for new technology, to which Markson replied that the Federal Communications Commission has standards that are updated that cable companies must follow.

The town board voted to approve a draft of the contract upon town attorney Aline Galgay’s approval.

Mid-Hudson Cable has already begun mapping areas of Westerlo in preparation for installing cable, and expects to have the project completed shortly after the town approves it, said David Fingar, chief engineer at Mid-Hudson Cable.

The company is looking to apply for a grant from the state’s Broadband Program Office Fingar told The Enterprise last month. As part of the grant’s stipulations, it must offer 25 megabits per second 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 Counties.

According to the state’s webpage, this third round of grants through the New New York Broadband program will award applicants in order of whichever requires the smallest investment first. The goal is to target all remain unserved (where internet is only available at less than 25 megabits per second download speed) and underserved (where internet is available at download speeds between 25 and 100 megabits per second) areas in the state.

Verch noted at last Tuesday’s meeting that several roads in Westerlo are in unserved and underserved census blocks.

As the planning board chairwoman, Verch had expressed concern over the town’s access to the internet and to cell service. When considering whether to approve a cell tower, she had noted seeing children outside the closed Westerlo Public Library attempting to use the free wifi in order to complete homework.

The push to expand broadband access in Westerlo comes as Albany County attempts to introduce wireless internet to areas in the Hilltowns such as Berne and Knox. Westerlo’s broadband committee members said after the meeting that they would welcome that as a way to reach others who may not receive internet through Mid-Hudson Cable.


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