NEW LEBANON–The state led initiative Broadband for All, announced in Hudson earlier this year by Governor Cuomo, pledges on its website that “by 2018 every New Yorker will have access to high speed internet.” The governor is backing the plan with a $500-million investment. Nationally, the Connect America Fund, is granting money to improve service as well. Connect Columbia, a countywide group, is gathering data on service throughout the county. And local communities have formed their own broadband committees, trying to navigate how to get the access they’ve been promised.
New Lebanon town Supervisor Colleen Teal, who serves on the broadband subcommittee of the county Board of Supervisors, wrote in a recent email, “I believe that lacking infrastructure is the underpinning of most of the issues that we are dealing with both at the county level and at the individual town levels and broadband is the most critical. If we do not ‘fix’ this, it will be much harder to ‘fix’ the other issues we trying to deal with.”
Running fiber-optic cables and updating and repairing the equipment needed for improved internet service are expensive activities, especially in rural areas, where population density is low. When there are few potential customers, it is less likely that commercial providers will profit from their investment. Recent research has found that Columbia County is one of the two counties in the state with the worst internet service and some rely on telephone line dial-up service, that was obsolete decades ago.
Doug Banker, chairman of the New Lebanon Broadband Committee, says the town has tried unsuccessfully to get better internet service before, but he’s hopeful this time will be different. “Individual towns trying to get broadband don’t have enough critical mass to influence Fairpoint to do something better for them at a price they can afford,” he says. Now, with Connect Columbia bringing together the majority of towns in the county, much of the county’s population of roughly 60,000 people is represented as opposed to just 2,500 New Lebanon residents.
Fairpoint, which has the local monopoly for conventional landline phone service in New Lebanon and many rural areas of the county, offers DSL internet service in some areas. But DSL it is limited both in where it is available and in the speed of its connections.
A recent regulatory compromise may lead to better service. Charter Communications, which operates cable TV franchises in many rural areas of Columbia County, has merged with Time Warner Cable. In exchange for approving that merger, state regulators have required the new company, now called Spectrum, to provide true high speed internet access to underserved rural areas.
Mr. Banker believes the merger that spawned Spectrum may convince Fairpoint to upgrade its service too. “They’ve begun updating fiber in central locations,” he said, referring to fiber optic cables.
Fairpoint could not be reached for comment.
Andrew Russel, from Charter’s media relations, wrote in an email, “Once our network is updated in Columbia County we will begin offering Spectrum services… we look at several factors when evaluating network extensions, including the number of homes and businesses that can be served, proximity to our existing network and overall economic feasibility.”
As for the goal of total broadband coverage by 2018, Mr. Russel wrote, “Charter is committed to completing our upgrade of the existing Columbia County communities we serve by 2018… deploying our network to 145,000 unserved homes and businesses in rural upstate New York, and to bringing faster broadband speeds to the communities we serve. These investments will all be from Charter, with no state support.”
The role of the towns, Mr. Banker says, is to “keep an eye on improvements… make sure [internet providers] do what they say and don’t overlook parts of town.”
Broadband service is measured by the speed at which digital information can be downloaded and uploaded. High speed internet is not essential for basic email and some web browsing, but downloads can be slow and for businesses or those who work from home lower speed internet cannot always accommodate file sharing and streaming. “For a business user,” Mr. Banker says, bad internet “actually costs them money.”
For some even the cost of basic internet is too high (currently Fairpoint charges $44.95 per month for DSL and $80 for high speed in New Lebanon; Spectrum charges $59.99 per month as a national rate for high speed internet). And one over the air service, ASA Networks, does not advertise service in New Lebanon on its website.
Mr. Banker, though officially retired, also works at the New Lebanon Public Library where many patrons come to use internet. Government agencies and businesses increasingly require online paperwork and homework references online text books and assignments, further disadvantaging kids and adults alike that don’t have reliable internet.
Sarah Steadman, who runs the Mall of Found artist residency in New Lebanon, has struggled with poor internet. “If we have artists coming and the internet’s out, which does happen, they can’t access our files. It’s really embarrassing when we’re fundraising with someone.”
The current service, she says is “unpredictable, like the weather,” and her small organization has ruled out high speed internet due to cost and difficulty to obtain.
Connect Columbia has created a survey for local business owners and community members to get a more accurate picture where service is inadequate. Residents and businesses can take the survey and share opinions at:
(Copake’s broadband effort was covered in the November 17 issue of The Columbia Paper.)