Across state line, a race to close broadband gap

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NEW LEBANON, N.Y. — "Pretty primitive," Dianne Hobden, of Canaan, N.Y., says of her internet connection.

"You can't stream because it keeps buffering," adds her friend, Lorraine Gregg, of Chatham, N.Y.

Across the state line, thousands in Berkshire County towns without broadband know the feeling well.

But as both Massachusetts and New York work to expand broadband access, there are 500 million reasons New York may be able to do in three years what the Bay State has pursued for a decade.

In January 2016, Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York announced a plan to get broadband internet speeds to 98 percent of New York homes by the end of 2018. In his corner: a towering pile of cash not available to leaders in Boston. New York is financing its drive with a $500 million fund amassed through fees and penalties on Wall Street malfeasance.

The Massachusetts Broadband Institute has access to less than a tenth of that amount through a $40 million bond authorization.

"You've got to take your hat off to both Cuomo and [Attorney General Eric] Schneiderman for saying, 'Hey, we've got crooks, let's make this work,' " said David P. Berman, co-chairman of Connect Columbia, a citizens group. "That's the joy of this."

Berman's group is working with government and private companies to bring affordable broadband to the roughly 68,000 residents of the county, ranked as one of the New York state regions most in need of help.

"You could almost call it a private-private partnership. The crooks' fines, administered by the state, have been shared with other companies. It's all private money, to a degree," Berman said. "Crime is paying for consumers of Columbia County."

Reverse auctions

Along with its windfall on funding, New York is taking a different approach to harnessing help from the private sector. While Massachusetts last fall asked private providers to say how much public money they'd need to bring broadband to an unserved community, New York has held "reverse auctions."

In these, companies win by requesting the smallest subsidies. In Massachusetts, the MBI later negotiated with two of the private providers that it qualified, winning some cost concessions.

Also, while Massachusetts set a target of reaching the FCC definition of broadband, the New York Broadband Program Office went higher than 25 megabits per second for download speeds. It compels private companies to provide download speeds of 100 Mbps in most places, or 25 Mbps in the most remote areas. At 100 Mbps, a high-definition movie can be downloaded in 90 seconds.

Unlike Massachusetts, the New York plan does not carve out an option for municipal ownership. The auctions for services, organized by census blocks, tap a strictly private sector solution. Participating companies can be reimbursed for up to 80 percent of their capital costs.

Massachusetts broadband officials, such as Timothy Connelly, chief executive officer of the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, have been urging towns to accept coverage from private firms. Residents of towns that decide to accept state grants to build municipal networks will cover as much as two-thirds of the cost themselves.

The New York program requires no local contribution — making it similar to one of the MBI's options: Grants and subsidies paid to Charter Communications or Comcast to expand in places they do business or enter new territory in the Bay State.

New York just started its third round of awards to private companies, having earmarked about $24 million for Columbia County alone in the second round of grants in February.

Columbia's plight

Columbia County was identified as an area sorely in need of broadband, but only after local prodding, according to one participant.

It shouldn't have come as a surprise. The Federal Communications Commission estimates that 39 percent of those living in rural areas in the U.S. lack broadband, compared to 4 percent in cities.

Colleen Teal, New Lebanon's supervisor, attended a meeting in January 2016 at Columbia-Greene Community College in Hudson, as the New York program was launched. People from the new broadband office suggested Columbia County had decent service, Teal said.

"We all knew better," she said. "There's nothing here."

But the future looks far brighter to Teal and others tracking the big state project.

"Everything just seems to be coming together at the right time," Teal said. "We're looking at a whole new ballgame."

The second round of statewide awards will finance $268 million in public-private investment in broadband and fuel 54 separate projects reaching 89,514 homes and institutions.

Jeffrey S. Nordhaus, executive vice president for innovation and broadband in the Empire State Development Corp., is heading up New York's push to close the digital divide. Cuomo acted after mapping showed the connectivity problem was widespread.

"It became clear that there were pockets of unserved areas in the state," Nordhaus said in an interview with The Eagle.

The latest round paid off big time for little towns in Columbia County. New Lebanon, with 868 units, landed $2.7 million, which is to be combined with $3.4 million in private investment. The town and village of Chatham got a combined $5.1 million award and Ghent, with 687 units, will be backed with $1.9 million in state money.

Companies that secured funding to serve the county include Germantown Telephone Co., Mid-Hudson Data Corp. and State Telephone Co.

"Columbia County got more money than anybody else in this last round, which is a big deal, and we recognize that," said Berman, of Connect Columbia. "We are absolutely thrilled with it and it will make a huge difference."

A third round of eligibility has started. At the same time, the Broadband Program Office is qualifying experts who will scrutinize the dozens of separate broadband projects to ensure they hit their goals and meet the construction deadline of Dec. 31, 2018.

The point of the oversight, Nordhaus said, is "making sure all those pieces are functioning well. ... I feel very optimistic that we will achieve broadband for all."

The broadband office says it is on track with timing and schedule goals. There are more than 50 projects involving 26 companies. The push is considered to be the largest and most ambitious broadband project in the country.

One challenge ahead will be to reach the missing 2 percent — roughly 162,000 premises that are the most remote and not yet on the buildout list.

Just in case the $500 million fund taps out, New York this year secured an additional $170 million through the federal Connect America Fund.

On the ground

One thing New York and Massachusetts seem to share, when it comes to broadband, is public skepticism, born of years of disappointment.

One day last week, Gregg gathered at the Blueberry Hill Market Cafe in New Lebanon with two longtime friends for a regular lunch.

"It's not going to happen," Gregg said, when asked about the state's broadband push.

She said she's learned not to try to get online from her home in Chatham, using a FairPoint Communications data connection, after 3 p.m. because of system lags.

Jan Gamello, of Ghent, says her service seems to have gained slightly — and that's a big help, since she runs a travel agency part time out of her home. "It's improved in the past year. There must have been some complaints down the way. I think if I was doing it every day I would be more frustrated with it than I am now."

Not everyone is seeing gains.

"It's just awful in New Lebanon," said Hobden, the Canaan resident who joined her friends for lunch. "It's an ongoing issue."

A sense of resignation remains. "We all live on back roads and have terrible driveways," Hobden adds.

A recent survey on broadband in Columbia County captured that gloom. Out of 103 responses in New Lebanon alone, 72 percent said they are "very" or "somewhat" disappointed with available internet service.

Ninety-five percent said they are using DSL, a phone data system with extremely limited speeds that does not qualify as broadband. But that's been about the only choice, other than subscribing to a satellite internet provider or trying to use a cellphone. One person admitted to using dial-up.

Jeannie Bogino, director of the New Lebanon Library, said she believes broadband will bring benefits. "Our residents are very excited about it," she said.

Teal, the New Lebanon supervisor, tries to combat pessimism.

"It's one of my passions," she said of broadband expansion. "It's such a positive change."

Until recently, Charter Communications (through the former Time Warner system) only provided cable TV service, with data connections available, in limited areas, through FairPoint.

"We want broadband for everyone," said Teal, who on top of town duties serves with Connect Columbia and sits on a county broadband subcommittee.

Economic growth in the region depends on it, she said. "It's not going to happen until we fix this problem," Teal said.

Around New Lebanon, it's hard to find companies that depend on fast internet, simply because it doesn't exist. "We've become so used to struggling with that," Teal said. "They're not dependent on that type of technology because we've never had it."

Howard Commander, owner of the Lebanon Valley Speedway, a bit west on Route 20, decided years ago he didn't have the option of waiting. He paid $29,000 to connect to what's now a Charter fiber-optic line running along the busy road.

Commander felt he needed to provide Wi-Fi service for the thousands of customers who turn up for stock car races, during a season that kicked off last weekend.

"They want to be hooked up," Commander said of his patrons.

About a decade ago, seeing a similar gap in communications, he persuaded Sprint to put a cell tower atop the building overlooking the speedway.

The track's broadband connection doesn't come cheap. It costs $750 a month and serves three businesses based at the speedway, including the firm Commander co-owns with Bill Black to construct athletic fields.

Black said the data contract is up for renewal next year. "Either they get reasonable or we'll switch," he said. "This time next year we'll be talking to them. We need a faster internet. If we don't get it soon we'll have to move our business."

At Johnny's Barber Shop in New Lebanon center, owner John Le Barnes, a Pittsfield native, said few customers are talking about the digital divide. More are hoping for another new player in the local economy.

"Everybody wants a grocery store," he said. "That's the biggest talk in the town."

MOVING PARTS

Teal, the New Lebanon supervisor, says the broadband puzzle is complex. One piece is a state Public Service Commission order related to Charter's acquisition of Time Warner Cable that requires it to improve and expand its coverage without the carrot of subsidy.

Plus, there are questions about the accuracy of maps and future gaps in coverage in Columbia County, even with all the money that will be reimbursed to private companies.

But Teal wants to see service expanded now, not more talk.

"We're going to know where those holes are about halfway through the process," she said.

Berman, the Connect Columbia co-chairman, understands the frustration people feel about existing internet speeds.

"All the people I talk to want me to wave a magic wand and make this happen," he said. "As we all know, the magic wand business ain't what it used to be.

"It's a slower process than everyone would like, me included. And it requires a bit of education of the consumers that this is not something that can be done overnight. But from where we started, about a year and a half ago, on just trying to raise awareness and lobby the political powers that be that so much more is needed, we've come a long way," Berman said.

"That said, we've got a ways to go. The governor's program is going to do wonders, but this is something that requires physical construction of actual hardware, software, etc., and that takes some time," he said.

Kevin Smith, a member of the New Lebanon Town Board, admitted that he still struggles with some older technologies. He tried to send a fax recently by phone from the pizza business where he works. No dice. That prompted him to call Charter to ask when the company would be ready to bundle services, including telephone.

"I called last week and they have no idea when that is going to happen," Smith said.

Nonetheless, like Teal, he is optimistic about closing the digital divide in New Lebanon.

"I think it'll get there. How long it will take I wouldn't guess," Smith said. "At least progress is being made. You've got to start some place."

Reach staff writer Larry Parnass at 413-496-6214 or @larryparnass.


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