Westerlo works to fill broadband gaps

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

Few cars, few people.  Route 402 west of Westerlo hamlet falls far short of the population density required by Mid-Hudson Cable to run cable, but the Broadband Research Committee hopes to change the company’s mind.

WESTERLO — Is help on the way for Westerlo residents who still live without broadband internet?  Maybe.

The volunteer Broadband Research Committee — composed of all the members of the town’s planning board plus several concerned citizens — has been hard at work for five months to make it happen.

The state’s new $500 million Broadband Program, which aims for nothing less than “universal broadband deployment,”  is trying to fill the broadband  holes in the state’s “underserved” and “unserved” places.

On Aug. 3, the governor’s office claimed that state and private initiatives combined will bring broadband to 179,000 additional households this year, and promised universal broadband by the end of 2018.

Not just broadband is promised  but high-speed broadband: at least 100 megabytes per second in most areas and at least 25 Mbps in “remote unserved parts of the state,” according to the program’s stated goals.

The current average download speed for New York State fixed wired broadband users is 49.70 mbps according to Speedtest.net, a speed close to the national average, which exceeded the 50 mbps mark for the first time  in the first half of the year.

A recent speed test at Westerlo town hall, which accesses  the Internet through Mid-Hudson cable broadband, showed a speed of 7.24 mbps..

The state divides  broadband-deficient areas into two categories.

Unserved areas are those where “broadband service is not available from a wireline-based provider at advertised speeds equal to or higher than 25 mbps,” while underserved are defined as those with “advertised speeds”  no greater than 100 mbps.

The state has high goals for its  program, but will Westerlo households without broadband benefit? Or will the Broadband Research Committee have to make it happen through a more grassroots approach?

It’s hard to say how many town residents are internet-deprived. Dorothy Verch, chairwoman of the the town’s planning board, estimates that only about one-third of Westerlo residents currently have broadband access at various speeds.

The options

Leonard Laub, a member of the Broadband Research Committee, says most households that have broadband access get it through Mid-Hudson Cable. But Mid-Hudson Cable has not run cable to the least populated parts of  the thinly populated town. Like most cable companies, Mid-Hudson requires a certain population density to justify the expense of running cable to a location. Mid-Hudson  says it needs a population density of at least 35  homes per mile.

Those with no television cable service must resort to other options.

Some residents access the internet through old-fashioned dial-up, via their phone line. Others use their cell-phone data plan, which can be a costly option.

Some use NYAir, a fixed wireless system that uses towers to provide coverage in Westerlo and Rensselaerville and in other areas south of Albany on both side of the Hudson River. Its advertised basic service plan costs almost $50 per month for 1.0 Mbps download speed., which is slow by any standard.

NYAir and WiSpring, another fixed wireless broadband provider serving western Massachusetts, are both now owned by Mid-Hudson Data, a holding company formed by Mid-Hudson Cable to gather various broadband technologies under one ownership.

In contrast, the merger of Time-Warner and Charter into a company called Spectrum will deliver, says the office of Governor Andrew Cu0m0, 100 Mbps to 2 million  New Yorkers by early 2017  in Spectrum-franchise areas.

HughesNet, a satellite service available in Westerlo offers download speeds of up to 5 Mbps, also for about $50 a month.

Laub says NYAir “tends to be slow” and a HughesNet connection has about  a “one-second turn-around.”  Called “signal latency,”  even a slight  delay in downloading makes activities like trading, gaming, and voice communication problematic.

Mid-Hudson Cable on its website say it has upgraded its network and now offers speeds up to 100 Mbps.   Their  “bundle” of TV cable and 100 Mbps download speed is priced at a  little over $100 per month.

 

The Enterprise — Michael Koff
Internet portal. For those without internet access at home, or with only too expensive or too slow access, the Westerlo Public Library is a go-to place. A recent speed test there showed a download speed of 6.66 megabytes per second, provided by Mid-Hudson Cable. That qualifies the library as an “underserved” institution by state government broadband standards.

 

The goal

Laub says to fully understand  how broadband-deprived Westerlo is, check out the library in the Westerlo hamlet after hours.

“It’s sad,” he says, “to see the cars queued around the building so the kids can use the library internet access to do their homework.” The library has even installed a USB port outside so users can recharge their devices  when needed after open hours.

Laub  said the committee's objective  is “to get broadband access to those without it and in a way they can afford.” Laub, who works out of his home, uses a T-1 connection to the internet, through Verizon,  a  fast but expensive option

Verch, a leader of the drive to bring better broadband coverage to the town,  discerns  a generational difference and change in the town.

“We have an aging population up here; we’re remote. There are older people who still are satisfied with getting three TV channels and don’t want cable, much less the Internet,” she says, “But there’s a new generation that feels very differently.”

According to the last federal census, in 2010, Westerlo has a population of 3,361 with 1,319 residents, more than a third,  over the age of 50.

Verch also says there’s an increasing number of “cottage industries”— home-based businesses in Westerlo like Laub’s consulting business — that require fast internet.

The governor’s new broadband program  replaces a previous one called ConnectNY, which doled out several dozen grants and millions of dollars to counties, service providers, and cable companies to extend broadband to places and homes where it wasn’t  available.

Hamilton County, for example, received $1,700,000 to provide high-speed Internet access to more than 8,000 county residents. The upstate rural county, according to the state, had the largest percentage of unserved residents: 97 percent, at the time of the grant. In 2010, the county had under 5.000 residents, the smallest population by far among all New York counties.

Mid-Hudson Data was the recipient of a $1,009,339 grant, through the governor’s new program’s  Phase One,  for expansion of fixed wireless in its service areas. Fixed wireless uses microwave antennas, rather than fiber-optic cable and is one way to get broadband to  thinly populated areas.

Could this be an answer for Westerlo? Laub described to The Enterprise a no-longer-used AT&T tower in the northeast of Westerlo on which microwave antennas might be installed.

Focus on SLIC

But thus far in its research, as reported to the town board at its June meeting, the broadband committee seems most impressed by its conversations with SLIC Network Solutions based in Nicolville, near Potsdam. Its president, Paul Wagschal, met with the committee in June.

Wagschal told the committee that SLIC has installed 800 miles of fiber optic cable through rural St. Lawrence and Fulton counties to provide fiber-to-the-home  high-speed internet, phone, and cablevision. The SLIC  website offers a premium bundle with 50 mps download speed for $199.95 per month.

SLIC received  $595,000 from ConnectNY to run 80 miles of fiber optic cable from Tupper Lake in Franklin County to Long Lake in Hamilton County, and another grant for over $1 million  to “provide high-speed, low-cost broadband service to 457 households in the unserved areas of the Town of Schroon and the Town of North Hudson” using  fiber-to-the home technology, according to a ConnectNY web page.

In its June report to the town board, the research committee  said  “SLIC knows how to work with the NYS Broadband Office to obtain funding to allow expansion into rural areas.”  SLIC was not among the 14 award winners in the  first round of the state’s new broadband program.

Another thing the committee liked about SLIC was its density criteria:  as few as eight homes per mile against Mid Hudson’s 35 homes per mile, making the arrival of broadband to eight home on Route 402 — the committee’s most immediate concern — within the realm of possibility.

The committee is also interested in hearing what Spectrum has to say about expanding its service into Westerlo from neighboring towns.

Mid-Hudson’s role

Short-term, the committee is  trying to sign up as many people as possible along Route 402 to make Mid-Hudson expansion there feasible.

The town’s 15-year contract with Mid-Hudson expires at the end of this year. But if the committee were expecting an accommodating response from the company, it was disappointed. The committee’s report says Mid-Hudson Cable’s chief engineer David Fingar told them earlier this year,  “We will throw you a bone and connect these homes if you sign the agreement immediately and relinquish the franchise fee for five years.”

Asked for comment, Fingar says he doesn’t remember saying that, but that such an arrangement is standard practice. He also says that a  larger number of homes — “more like 50,’ as he recalls — and a wider swathe of Westerlo were involved in the discussion.

Verch recalls differently. She told The Enterprise that the map used in discussion with Mid-Hudson highlighted only the eight  homes along  Route 402,  west of the hamlet.

A 3-percent franchise fee paid by each Mid-Hudson subscriber — three to four dollars per month — goes to town coffers.  The committee said the total cost to the town of giving up the franchise fee for five years would be $85,000.

The committee report laid out some possible negotiating positions with Mid-Hudson, including increasing the franchise fee to cover the needed service expansion or  not renewing the agreement but continuing to collect the fee and using  it to pay for running cable to the homes along Route 402.

Berne  presently has no franchise agreement with Time-Warner, its provider, but still collects the franchise fee.

Short-term, committee members are working to sign up as many Route 402 homes as it  can to make expansion there less costly and more attractive to Mid-Hudson.

Thinking big

But long-term, the committee is thinking big.  An alliance of Hilltowns served by a mix of service providers might one day make high-speed broadband as widely available as water from a tap, at a price that almost everyone could afford.

As for the state programs, the committee is working that angle, too. But Maria Michalos in the governor’s office for the Broadband Program points out that applications for funding must come from  a “municipal provider (i.e. county, city, town operating and maintaining their own network).”

She says that in places like Westerlo where local government does not operate a network, the applicant (the town) would have to “partner with a provider that does not have at least 500 customers. “If a  town is interested,” she said in an email to The Enterprise, “they should reach out to the local providers to create a partnership.”

Fingar says that Mid-Hudson is hoping to receive funding from the state for further expansion of broadband in its service areas  but can only apply for funding for those areas that appear on the the Broadband Program’s list of  underserved or unserved areas that are eligible for funding. Westerlo is not among them, he says.

But Michalos says, “Many parts of Westerlo are eligible.”

The Broadband Program Phase 2 guidelines for applications states that each application “must serve a minimum of 250 units.”  According to the 2010 federal census, Westerlo had 1,600 housing units in 2010.  

The state is accepting applications for Phase 2 funding from Oct. 17 to Nov. 30.

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