Seven years after state created Broadband Program Office, Adirondack region remains behind in access to service
By Tim Rowland
Over the last several years, state and federal governments have pumped millions of dollars in the effort to wire rural communities with broadband, yet a meaningful number of Adirondackers — the exact number is unknown — remain unserved, or dependent upon inferior connections.
Part of the reason, say internet providers and a group of North Country broadband advocates, is that much of the financial outlay intended to wire homes is instead going to taxes and fees that do little to promote the cause.
The state itself, for example, takes a cut of its own grant money for fiber running through, under or over state land. And utility companies get what providers say is an exorbitant cut as well, for allowing the providers to use their poles.
In 2015 New York State established the $500 million Broadband Program Office. At that time, running fiber cost $4,000 a mile, Monty said. Today it’s $16,000.
That in part helps explain why the broadband industry and local-government and nonprofit advocates struggle to reach small pockets of people who, some 15 years after broadband became widely available, still have to drive to a library or town hall if they want to patch into a strong signal.
There are other issues as well. For example, it’s surprisingly difficult to figure out where unserved Adirondack residents live, so trying to connect them is akin to throwing life preservers in the dark.
Further, the state tax code almost seems to have been written expressly to discourage rural broadband. And even arcane little details, such as how grant money is apportioned, can help some people while leaving their neighbors out.
These headwinds have in some cases made it unaffordable for private companies — which seek to make a profit — to reach homes on sparsely populated roads.
So even as the Cuomo administration was making bold pronouncements about universal broadband availability, its own taxes, fees and laws were all but ensuring that the initiative would fall short, according to broadband providers.
But for all that, North Country advocates believe that they will eventually succeed, even if their optimism is tinged with a hard edge of frustration that comes with knowing the job is more maddening and more costly than it needs to be. “I wouldn’t say we’re close, but we’re moving faster than we have before,” said Beth Gilles, director of the Lake Champlain-Lake George Regional Planning board.
Fees driving up costs
The regional planning board is representing six North Country counties trying to land a $20 million grant from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to connect 3,000 more homes. The nearly $7,000 price tag per home is reflective of the rural nature of these households, but also a subset of costs that serve to extend fiber not an inch.
Emblematic of this situation, Monty said, is a fee the New York Department of Transportation began to levy two years ago on fiber laid in, above, or crossing state property.
Broadband providers find it particularly galling that this fee does not apply to coaxial cable or copper wires. Nor does it apply to other utilities such as water and sewer lines.
This tax may not be as consequential to large telecoms that are wiring dense neighborhoods full of houses on quarter-acre lots. But in the Adirondacks, where the distance between homes is measured in miles, not in feet, the costs can mount. “This issue highlights a real urban-rural divide,” said Kevin Lynch, CEO of SLIC Network Solutions, a small North Country broadband provider based in Nicholville.
SLIC is among a handful of North Country companies that have gone where large companies can’t, or won’t, to reach the “last mile” households that are not clustered closely enough to return big profits. These companies, which often collaborate more than they compete, are able to parlay grant money into remote connections — but even they are bound by financial realities, and an added expense such as the state right-of-way fee can mean the difference between being able to serve a rural home or not.
In an email, Bryan Viggiani, DOT public information officer, said the fees “help ensure safe and appropriate installation of fiber on publicly-owned property as well as protect the safety of workers and the traveling public.”
The fee is projected to raise $30 million for the state, but the effects are felt more severely in the Adirondacks, with its copious amounts of public land.
Laurie Marr, director of communications for the Watertown-based Development Authority of the North Country, said it’s hard to run a line anywhere in Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties without crossing state property and triggering the fees.
DANC lays open-access trunk lines in the three counties, allowing any last-mile provider to patch in and run fiber to individual homes. It has 1,800 miles of fiber, which — when the state decided to tax public rights of way — translated into $1.6 million in annual DOT fees. That’s 27% of the network’s revenue, Marr said — money that would have gone toward providing more broadband coverage to people in need that will now go instead to the state.
The fee adds to the overall cost of running these lines which a year ago cost $25,000 per mile for and is $35,000 today, Marr said.
At some point it stops being affordable for the providers, which must not only run the line, but factor in maintenance and equipment costs. “They’re not nonprofits,” Marr said. “Companies are in business to make money, that’s just a fact of life.”
One family’s struggle
Alix Wojewodzic is an Adirondacker who has struggled to get an internet connection to her home. A 30-year-old professional with two children in elementary school and two grandparents in failing health, the quality of her family’s life on any given day can be dependent on whether her cell phone is showing one bar or three. And that can be interrupted based on atmospheric conditions.
If it’s three, her kids can get help with their lessons, she can keep in touch with her work at the Moriah Chamber of Commerce and maintain a visual link to the camera monitoring her grandparents’ home. If it’s one bar, all bets are off.
Wojewodzic has tried two different satellite services and looked into Verizon and AT&T. She patched into hotspots and burned through SIM cards. During the pandemic, sbe parked outside public buildings in the cold and listened as two children and two teachers talked over each other during remote learning. “Other families didn’t have to go through that. It wasn’t fair,” she said.
She has called and written to public officials, who have been sympathetic. Wojewodzic doesn’t live in the remote backcountry, but two miles from the hamlet of Moriah. Yet the service she has been able to cobble together is either of poor quality, expensive or both. Satellites work fine the first week of the month, then slow without extra payments to upgrade. Spectrum cable comes oh-so-close, but will come no further up Fairy Lake Road without a $2,500 hook-up charge, leaving her and about 10 neighbors without a service that most people now view as essential.
To illustrate, a family bought a lot on Fairy Lake Road, cleared the land, dug a foundation and had electricity run to the site. But when they found that broadband would not be coming, the deal fell through. “They literally just walked away,” Wojewodzic said.
Right now, that tenuous cell phone connection is the only contact her home has with the outside world. “These companies don’t see any benefit in coming up my road. I don’t have a house phone and some days I can’t even check email — it’s insane.”
Stringing fiber along Fairy Lake Road would have been affordable before the grant money started to flow and the utilities were able to make money from their installed poles.
Under a process called “make-ready,” power companies largely dictate the terms under which they allow other companies — phone, cable, internet — to hang wire from their poles. For safety, these wires can’t be too close to the power lines.
If a pole is too low, the fiber provider must pay for the installation of a taller pole. This is true whether the pole that’s being replaced is relatively new, or at the end of its life. So broadband providers are faced with paying for something the power company might have already budgeted to do on its own.
“NYSEG and National Grid are getting their infrastructure built for them,” Monty said. “That’s money that could have been spent to provide people with broadband.” Providers also may be charged rent by the power companies to use these very same poles that they have just purchased and paid to have installed, he said.
Patrick Stella, Upstate New York communications director for National Grid, said the make-ready process is performed in accordance with state Public Service Commission guidelines, and that National Grid has not raised its fees for using the poles since 2016. He said the costs of preparing polls for fiber reflect the fact that, when the power lines were built, no one had any idea that something called broadband would one day be coming along. And due to the inherent danger of power lines, for safety’s sake, modifications must be done with scrupulous attention to detail.
“In many cases, attachments can be accommodated on existing poles or with just minor modifications by reorganizing or relocating existing attachments on the pole,” he said. “In other cases, particularly where existing poles do not have sufficient capacity or clearances for additional attachments, attachers may be required to replace the pole with a larger pole that can accommodate new attachments.”
That can be the case more often than not in the Adirondacks, where polls are old, short and farther apart. “Although this does not affect electric distribution, when added equipment and use is proposed in areas where poles tend to be smaller and spaced further apart, third party attachment costs can be considerably higher than areas with existing, taller, more robust poles,” Stella said. “As attachers attempt to build out in the more remote regions of the state, they can encounter greater challenges associated with legacy infrastructure.”
Still, recognizing a problem, the state Legislature has passed a measure (awaiting the governor’s signature) requiring broadband providers to pay the only depreciated value of poles that need to be replaced, rather than the much higher cost of a new pole. “Signing the pole attachment bill we passed this year into law and seeing movement on DOT tax relief for rural areas to make last-mile connections are two essential steps,” said Assemblyman Matt Simpson, a Republican from Brant Lake.
Who’s left behind?
Not all the problems getting broadband to rural households involve money. In one respect, it’s even more basic than that. That’s because no one even knows how many New Yorkers are denied high speed broadband. In September, state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli released a report indicating that 14% of New Yorkers lacked the service, including 6% of people in Essex and Herkimer counties and 15% in Hamilton County. Monty believes those figures are misleading, because the state counts satellite, which Monty said is substandard in terms of speed, reliability and cost. “We all know satellite isn’t broadband,” he said.
A survey conducted by DANC and Northern Tier counties bears this out, painting a far less rosy picture than did the state. It found that 49% of the people in Lewis County and 45.5% of St. Lawrence County report no access other than less-than-satisfactory dial-up, hotspot or satellite.
Maps of those who have and don’t have service in the Adirondacks are scarce because the bigger providers won’t release a database of their customers, considering it to be proprietary information. Advocates have tried to compile lists of their own, with mixed results.
In late summer, county supervisors in six Adirondack counties put out a call for people who did not have broadband to contact their offices. But the data collected points to both access and affordability issues because people who had no access to the internet made contact as did those whose access was cut off for not paying their bills.
Even the standard tax code works against universal service in rural areas. A mile of fiber is taxed based on the cost to build it, not on the amount of revenue it generates. That means broadband providers pay the same tax whether this mile serves two households or 200 — so from a tax standpoint, rural Adirondackers are potentially left out because densely populated areas of the state generate proportionally less tax revenue.
The very nature of the grant money itself can also be an issue, Lynch, the SLIC official, said. Grants are awarded by census tract, while providers work by road. So a tract may have a handful of residents who are served with the help of government money, but that money isn’t enough to reach one or two households that are in the same tract, but on the other side of a mountain. In the eyes of the bureaucracy, though, that census tract is checked off the list, and it’s assumed the lone homes on the other side of the mountain have been served, even though they haven’t.
An alternate to fiber that could benefit people in remote homes involves technology that beams signal from existing poles, towers or municipal water tanks. Jason Guzzo, general manager of Hudson Valley Wireless, said his company has been providing wireless broadband for 20 years in Upstate New York, but has just started entering the Adirondacks.
Hudson Valley provides signal to Fort Ticonderoga by beaming it 26 miles to a tower on Mt. Defiance and then down to Lake Champlain. “We approach things a little differently,” Guzzo said. “We don’t have the cost models of traditional providers.”
Hudson Valley works with these traditional providers to come up with a plan for providing service to homes for which there is no other solution. Often that means a hybrid of wire and wireless. “We all know where we stand in the ecosystem,” he said.
Despite the obstacles, some officials believe that government is listening. Monty said the Adirondacks now has a voice at the Public Service Commission and Adirondack lawmakers are starting to get the attention of lawmakers in other regions. Organizations such as Gilles’ regional planning board have stepped up to help organize all the various companies and grant applications that the process involves. One by one, homes are being connected.
“It’s a big lift,” Gilles said,” “but it’s definitely worth it.”