Lagging in Wi-Fi access, rural neighbors work together to forge connections
By Tim Rowland
To Mike Hopmeier, it felt like an old-time country barn raising.
Hopmeier is president of a northern Virginia counterterrorism consulting firm who, in the Adirondacks, turned a Cold War thermonuclear missile site into a research laboratory. Not surprisingly, Hopmeier needed bandwidth, and lots of it.
But when Spectrum checked out his location on a lonely road south of the mountain called Poke-O-Moonshine, the company gave him an estimate of $50,000 to a lay a half-mile of fiber to his lab. Hopmeier figured there had to be a better way.
On his road were a handful of other homes and businesses, populated with people of varying skills and one common need: connection to high-speed internet. So for about a fifth of the money Spectrum wanted, Hopmeier bought a used Vermeer trencher, a fearsome piece of equipment that resembles a small bulldozer with an oversized chainsaw blade in front.
A neighboring sawmill owner knew how to operate heavy equipment, and other residents knew how to do wiring, or at least use a shovel. SLIC Network Solutions, a small but innovative North Country communications company, agreed to provide technical and engineering expertise. By the time winter set in, the job was largely complete.
“If you go back a hundred years, barns were the center of social life, and that’s what (broadband) is today,” Hopmeier said. “The community had a vested interest in getting this done, and they came together like they would have for a barn raising. But instead of raising a barn, they were laying fiber.”
Hoping other people might be able to do the same, Hopmeier is keeping the Vermeer, and plans to rent it out to communities in need for a nominal fee. In his view, all Adirondackers are in this together.
The Adirondack broadband project has been years in the works, and when the pandemic came along it exacerbated the difference in communication—and lifestyle—between the fiber haves and the have-nots.
Schools went remote, and businesses turned to videoconferencing. Some even staked their lives on the theory that it was safer living in the middle of the woods with the bears and the coyotes than in the crowded cities.
“COVID-19 has shown that broadband is not just a convenience—it is a necessity,” said Dave Wolff, a founding board member of AdkAction and a leading advocate for Adirondack broadband. “And people will do crazy things to get it.”
An incomplete plan
In 2015, Gov. Andrew Cuomo launched a $500 million initiative, pledging that 99.9 percent of New Yorkers would be connected to broadband by 2018, unleashing a swarm of bids, contracts and bucket trucks as communication companies took advantage of state subsidies to reach customers whose rural locales had previously made them unprofitable—and therefore irrelevant—to Big Business.
Even with state help, however, the Adirondack Park is filled with hills and hollows that the big carriers still wouldn’t touch. It is along these sparsely populated byways that Adirondackers have had to get creative, parking their cars alongside public hotspots; amplifying feeble cell signals; allowing a neighbor in need to patch in to a home network; switching devices on and off to conserve every last drop of bandwidth; and beaming a signal from one camp to another across a lake with dishes no bigger than a dinner plate.
The battle has been made harder by communication companies still prone to cherry-picking customers, and by untenable prices for those on the wrong side of a line.
In a white clapboard building that serves as the Lewis Town Hall, Supervisor Jim Monty has made broadband his own personal mission. He’s spent hours hunting down “anomalies” in which companies try to count easy hookups toward state-mandated quotas designed to serve hard-to-reach homes.
Monty is optimistic the job will be done in time, but it will take hard and persistent work of individuals, nonprofits, local governments and flexible companies like SLIC, which installed public Wi-Fi at the town hall when the pandemic hit. At times, residents would line up to catch the signal there. Even so, lack of broadband in the home “was a tremendous disadvantage,” Monty said.
“Teachers were required to teach from home, but some of them didn’t have access.” Two teachers, in fact, delivered their lessons not from the classroom or their homes, but from the Lewis Town Hall.
Monty’s assistant, Susie Ewald, was also among the community members who brought her kids to town hall to patch into the Wi-Fi. Like many on her road, she had bought a Verizon Jetpack, a piece of hardware that helped amplify a signal. It was a reasonable but imperfect solution that worked better for some, depending on their location.
“The kids on our street all had different results from the same solution,” she said. Some went with satellite service, but reported poor results—and on days when kids stayed home due to snow, that dish would scarcely work at all.
Broadband flows a bit like water, and with a slow connection the results are similar to turning on the dishwasher while someone is in the shower. Ewald said her boys had an online textbook so large that when one of them was using it to study, there wasn’t enough bandwidth left in the house to do anything else.
Like many in the Adirondacks, Ewald said, “we’d heard broadband was coming, but we didn’t know when.” That made it hard to know how much of an investment to make in what would ultimately be a temporary solution. Her family limped along until March, when a lineman knocked on her door with good news.
Jay Mountain Road is an improvement over a Jeep trail, but not by much. In spite of that, or maybe because of it, the area—collectively known as The Glen—is home to an interesting assemblage of artists, farmers, writers and craftspeople who like having one foot in and one foot out of the modern world. Janelle Schwartz lives high up the mountain pass, which grows increasingly rustic as it ascends.
Like a castaway who excitedly spots a plane, Schwartz watched as fiber trucks crept from pole to pole, getting ever closer to her home. Then, when less than a mile away from her house, they stopped and turned around. “They said ‘Oh, we’re so sorry—you would have loved it,’” she said.
To extend fiber to her house would have cost $30,000, so Schwartz said she’s hoping her community might come up with a solution similar to Hopmeier’s. Her family has also put down a deposit to tap into Elon Musk’s experiment with a constellation of internet-beaming satellites.
Like many on the fringes of communication, Schwartz knows all the pull-offs, parking lots, side roads and cemeteries where a bit of cell service can trickle through the mountains and she can park to patch in.
Schwartz works at Craigardan, an educational retreat and farm store located near Elizabethtown that has broadband issues of its own. Word is that fiber will come, but no one knows when, and in the meantime, satellite internet that the nonprofit relies on has to be rationed. When Craigardan hosts a Zoom meeting, all other cell phones and laptops must be switched off so as not to bleed precious drops of connectivity from the call.
Mapping the problem
No one knows how many people in the Adirondacks lack broadband, and that’s a significant part of the problem. The big communications companies won’t reveal their customer list, saying it’s proprietary, and there’s no perfect way to ask. “You can’t just send out an email and say, ‘If you didn’t get this, raise your hand,” AdkAction’s Wolff said.
So advocates are mapping the North Country, in some cases going door-to-door to see who has service and who doesn’t. To complicate the matter, sometimes communities show up in state and company databases as being connected when in fact they are not.
Newcomb Supervisor Robin DeLoria said the Tahawus community that included a clubhouse and 18 homes, was mislabeled, which caused it to be bypassed when the rest of the town was wired. Tahawus was connected to the web by telephone lines, and “was so slow the mail servers were timing out before any of the residents could download their mail,” DeLoria said.
“If we wanted to watch a movie, we got a DVD,” said Robert Cummings, an educational consultant who lives in Tahawus.
As with other communities, residents were quoted an exorbitant sum to lay fiber the two miles from State Route 28N. Cummings credited DeLoria with hounding the state until Frontier ran a wire along existing poles.
That might seem like an easy and cheap solution, but the politics of utility poles are stickier than might be expected.
SLIC Network Solutions was born of the Nicholville Telephone Co., founded on the northern rim of the Adirondacks in 1902. It specializes in bringing broadband the “last mile” into people’s homes, which, said Vice President Kevin Lynch, often involves creativity and working with individuals, communities and small businesses to serve communities that are not densely populated enough to attract the larger carriers.
“We focus on unserved areas, (and) really see rural broadband as a game-changer,” Lynch said. Besides helping on projects such as Hopmeier’s, SLIC has provided hotspots in schools and town parking lots and run fiber to lakeshores, where a signal can be beamed from home to home like a flashlight across the water.
“We’ve put wireless on a grain silo so kids could do their homework,” Lynch said. Residents have cheered their line workers like arriving cavalry. “It’s a great feeling to know you are so welcomed,” he said.
But sometimes “it’s almost like there’s a war on fiber optics,” Lynch said. Owners of utility poles can charge thousands of dollars to those who want to rent space to run a line, and since the state has ordered universal broadband coverage, those owners have decided there is money to be made—and raised their fees accordingly.
The state itself has ironically prevented rural homeowners from getting broadband, Lynch said, most notably by changing the way lines are taxed on private property and allowing the Department of Transportation to charge for lines put down in a highway right of way.
“Before the DOT tax, we were marginally profitable,” Lynch said. “Now there are (projects) that we can’t afford to do.”
A silver lining
Fiber “is an economic driver for employment,” Lynch said. “We’ve been able to hire people we wouldn’t have been able to hire” had it not been for broadband.
Other companies are learning the same thing. “If there’s a silver lining (to the pandemic), it’s the recognition that we can work remotely in this country,” Lynch said. “The first question Realtors get asked up here” is whether a prospective new home has high-speed internet.
In Tahawus, Cummings said his neighbors include an investment adviser, two architects and a literary agent. In his own line of work, fiber has allowed him to meet remotely.
“This is a second-home community,” he said. “But lo and behold, when fiber came, people decided they wanted to spend a lot more time here.”
Don’t miss a thing
This article first appeared in the May/June 2021 issue of Adirondack Explorer magazine.
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