LOWVILLE — The study of Lewis County broadband infrastructure and service is now complete and county legislators will begin work on getting the truly high speed internet access in more homes as the need has become more urgent under pandemic conditions.
Local residents answered the call to participate in the broadband survey on a level that impressed consultant ECC Technology. A total of 1,352 people took the survey, about 91% of whom were Lewis County residents.
Twenty-three percent of those respondents reported having no internet access at all, but including households that are underserved by slow satellite and cell phone “hot spot” connections, that jumps to 49% of households in the county that do not have access to internet that meets their needs.
Participants took the time to not just answer the required questions, but to share their own experiences, and, in many cases, details about their situations. There were a number of people concerned about more affordable internet prices that double or triple after six months or a year.
ECC included ads with introductory offer pricing as part of their market price analysis but made no mention of the significant hike in price after the initial grace period.
Respondents are concerned they will not be able to afford the higher expense when it comes, as indicated by a number of comments to the survey.
There were 463 people who submitted comments, the majority of whom spoke of slow speeds, frequent disconnections or having neighbors with high speed internet that ends just before their houses.
More than 40% of those who do have internet pay $75 or more monthly for the service that they often reported was slow and unreliable but their only option.
The inventory exercise exposed a number of opportunities to expand on the fiber infrastructure “backbone” that runs throughout the county as a starting point to build lines into the underserved rural areas.
This information was plotted along with the areas that are eligible for key grant funding that can help the county fund the multi-million dollar project.
“After selecting the census blocks served only by HughesNet and not by any other provider, a limited set of census blocks is revealed which can be prioritized and targeted for funding,” the report said with the map showing these opportunities. “Public/private partnerships between the county, DANC and other carriers can focus on technical solutions and funding for these areas.”
Many respondents in the Denmark, Pinckney and Harrisburg areas reported very limited access to the internet with either no access at all, dialup, cellular hot spot access or satellite service access all of which are notoriously slower than the promised 25 mbps download speed threshold.
The majority of survey participants in those towns also responded that they are not “able to purchase internet” that they need.
ECC recommended targeting certain areas most in need of faster internet solutions as indicated by the survey and inventory findings and that also have “backbone infrastructure” with fiber lines going through or near the clusters of households that need service, making any build out potentially quicker and less expensive.
Those areas include:
— 199 households in Pinckney and Harrisburg: These towns have fiber cable owned by Spectrum and DANC that provides “backhaul bandwidth” to a couple of towers in Barnes Corners. ECC said they think it “could be an ideal area for DANC or Spectrum to leverawge their fiber infrastructure to provide either coaxial or fiber-based broadband services or to create a wireless internet option that is fed signal by the fiber line. There could also be a good fit for the Northern Border Regional Commission Grant.”
— 86 households in Denmark: Like Pinckney and Harrisburg, the fiber backbone would make it easier for those companies to expand their infrastructure to these households which are concentrated in a “relatively small area.”
— 168 households in Diana: Although ECC predicts “a lengthy fiber build may be required to reach the homes,” DANC, Spectrum and the telephone company have fiber optic lines in the area.
— 83 households in Croghan: In addition to DANC, fiber in this area already exists from CATV and Telco which are all about three miles from the service area. Although there were few survey responses from this area of Croghan, those that did respond have DSL, satellite or no internet at all.
The consultant indicated the county can “play a lead role in developing solutions to meet the needs and requirements of the county as a whole,” but they do not recommend action in the following areas:
— 39 households in Osceola: While these households seem to be underserved, respondents claimed to be able to get the speeds they need. This area is eligible for a significant grant opportunity.
— 26 households in Martinsburg: While the need seems to be there, ECC said there were no survey responses in the areas that are also eligible for grant funding.
The concept of ensuring every household has access to high speed internet is not new to the country, the state or Lewis County and the rest of the north country region.
The state’s two-phase Broadband for All program did expand access to high speed internet, but was heavily dependent on the expensive, relatively slow and, with north country weather, unreliable satellite internet service.
“Of the 3,840 locations in Lewis County covered by the New NY Broadband Grant (the second phase of the program), 54.5% of the locations are being addressed via satellite service,” ECC’s report said.
Frontier Communications was also committed to providing fiber through the state program as well as through the Regional Digital Opportunity Fund, however, the company’s bankruptcy filing has delayed installation although they are expected to come out of Chapter 11 in the first quarter this year.
The merger of Time Warner and Charter Communications to form Spectrum required the new company to expand its services to 145,000 households around the state by 2020, however, that deadline was delayed to September this year.
Legislators were presented with the outcome of the study and the best options ECC foresees going forward in a presentation before their board meeting on Tuesday.
Director of Planning Casandra Buell gave an update on a number of upcoming grant opportunities, the availability of which could decide how much the county needs to invest in order to ensure they meet their goal of making high speed internet available for every household in the county.
About $5 million in stimulus money will be coming into county coffers and board Chairman Lawrence Dolhof suggested “setting aside” $2 million to focus on the broadband project, but legislators ultimately voted to approve setting aside $1 million for broadband and to form an ad-hoc committee to steer the process.
The 25 Mbps “high speed” standard for internet was set by the FCC in 2015, however, with the emergence of a new level of internet need because of the COVID-19 pandemic and vast quantities of people working or learning from home, that speed is proving inadequate by a large margin.
“A new standard of 100 Mbps download is being discussed among industry analysts. Four U.S. senators called upon the Biden Administration to establish a ‘21st century definition of high-speed broadband’ of 100 Mbps both download and upload. The FCC is likewise supporting a new standard above the current one,” ECC said in the study document.