As rural internet grows in importance, local officials seek to ensure the Adirondacks get their share of links
By James M. Odato
Elizabethtown businessman Larry Bucciarelli got a surprise in early September from the government affairs director of a broadband company that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo tried to banish a few years ago.
The director informed Bucciarelli that he will be receiving a cash refund. What’s more, six of Bucciarelli’s neighbors will also be getting checks from Charter Communications, the Charter executive, Kevin Egan, told them. The group will split $8,845.78.
Yet Egan, whose company is also known as Spectrum, wasn’t promising the money out of generosity. Bucciarelli and his friends in the Essex County hamlet had paid Charter $8,845.78 in the fall of 2016 to install lines and poles to connect to the company’s internet service.
Egan came calling after some investigative work by local officials found Charter had improperly listed Bucciarelli’s Adirondack home and those of his neighbors as new hookups, helping it meet its state-mandated expansion of service.
Charter did not deserve credit for those Blood Hill Road connections toward the 145,000 new connections it must reach by Sept. 30, 2021. That required buildout was set in an agreement of July 2019 to resolve a dispute with the Cuomo administration that ended the governor’s push to remove the company from New York for failing to meet previous commitments.
Charter’s settlement with the New York Public Service Commission requires the company to add underserved or unserved upstate residences and businesses to its high-speed network without charging the new customers for infrastructure.
Now, officials representing Adirondack and Catskill communities are getting nervous. If Charter has inflated or miscalculated the number of hookups it has provided, it could leave some of their constituents without adequate service at a time when broadband’s importance to rural economies is rising.
Some entrepreneurs are popping up with alternative ways to help people gain access to broadband even if Charter reaches its threshold and discontinues expansion in areas that are difficult to reach.
James Monty, supervisor of the Town of Lewis, which borders on Elizabethtown, uncovered Charter’s mistake through some sleuthing last spring. He formally complained to the PSC in July. The commission representatives seemed defensive and claimed to have a “robust” oversight process, Monty said.
Almost two months later, Egan called Monty to discuss the town’s concerns. After Egan gathered records from the homeowners on their payments, he told Monty the company had made an “accounting error,” Monty said, and committed to refunds. Egan declined a request for an interview.
“Lewis is just a small community of 1,500,” Monty said. “How many other communities that are bigger have similar anomalies?” Monty tracked down more than just Charter’s incorrect inclusion of the Blood Hill Road homes. He said he has found some others that don’t make sense. About 42 percent of connections Charter counts in Lewis toward its required buildout are wrong because several are along State Route 9 and lines passed by residences there even before Charter’s settlement, Monty said. He counts more than 20 mistakes, including the Blood Hill Road errors.
Monty worked with Dave Wolff, a board member and broadband advocate for Adk-Action, a nonprofit group based in Saranac Lake that explores ways to resolve issues facing Adirondack Park residents, to develop his presentation to the PSC. Monty assembled details that suggested Charter’s numbers were suspect after gaining access to Charter’s expansion data. He had to enter into a nondisclosure agreement to receive the information from the company on its Lewis connections.
He next drew up a map with consultants in Saranac Lake called Adirondack Research. He saw the inclusion of the Blood Hill Road residences and knew that one of his town council members lived on that unpaved part of town. He found out from that councilman that the neighbors had shared the cost of installation with Charter.
In a 45-minute Zoom presentation to two officials with the PSC on July 14, he and Wolff explained that Charter shouldn’t factor in the Blood Hill Road residences in its numbers. Either Charter had to refund the money to include the residences in the mandated buildout, or it had to subtract the eight from its numbers, they insisted. They also questioned the Route 9 hookups. The PSC
continues to review the matter, said James Denn, a spokesman for the commission.
“Makes you wonder how many of these there are in the state,” Wolff said. He noted that if Lewis is an illustration, a large percentage of the 80,000 new hookups Charter takes credit for may be dubious. Lara Pritchard, a spokeswoman for Charter, said her company is on track to meet its settlement requirements and that the company maintains an “ongoing review” to make
sure its figures are right. “We assess the status of every location to ensure proper accounting and eligibility for inclusion, as we did with this handful of homes on Blood Hill Road,” she said. When asked whether her company would have found out about the error had it not been for the town representatives bringing it to the attention of the PSC, she did not respond.
Cuomo moved to oust Charter in July 2018 after the PSC accused Charter of failing to honor terms of the 2016 agreement that allowed it to merge with Time Warner. It must inform the state on progress toward its expansion-of-service requirement. In May, Charter wrote to the PSC that it is ahead of schedule and had reached 109,108 connections already, state records show.
Wolff and Monty are taking their investigative tools to other town supervisors to help them check Charter’s numbers for connections in their areas. Officials in Schroon and Chesterfield, among 13 Essex County towns with franchise agreements with Charter, are beginning to take those closer looks. Both Monty and Wolff doubt that the Lewis mistake is an aberration.
Wolff is concerned because every wrong credit in Charter’s buildout figures could deny the Adirondacks a much-needed connection. The company had a head start in reaching its 145,000 goal, he said, because it was granted 64,827 “gimmees”—hookups or expansions the company was credited toward its July 2019 settlement goal, such as 9,500 connections it made in upstate cities like Schenectady and Albany. “That’s why I’m focused on 80,000,” Wolff said, referring to the dwellings and businesses to which Charter is under an obligation to connect.
Wolff said it costs the company about $4,200 to add an underserved or unserved customer upstate, so Charter can actually save by refunding money to some customers who previously paid for hookups.
Wolff is urging towns to ask the company for records that disclose where in each town it intends to expand and where it has added to meet its mandate. The data can be obtained, although Charter requires the town officials to sign a nondisclosure agreement for competitive purposes.
“Companies always claim: ‘We need confidentiality for competitiveness,’ but they’re often the only game in town, so I don’t know what they’re really talking about there,” said Sen. Jen Metzger, who is behind a bill that would bring transparency to the process of broadband expansion. The stakes are significant. Charter has added about 45,000 to its network beyond the 64,800 with which it started. That means it needs to find just about 35,000 more underserved or unserved customers before it no longer has to expend the time and funds to fill gaps in rural New York.
Under the agreement, the PSC demands that the company provide 100 megabits per second of broadband speed and consider a household with access to less than 25 megabits as unserved, and with access to 25-99.9 as underserved.
State lawmakers in Albany this June took action that could help make sure that the buildout will be accurately counted. The Senate and Assembly passed a bill that would require the PSC to create maps and detailed data that show the broadband coverage areas in the state. The bill, a bipartisan measure, calls for the map within a year after four public hearings. The timetable suggests that that work will happen after Charter’s completion deadline for its 145,000 buildup.
Metzger, a Catskills Democrat who sponsored the bill, said a clearer picture is needed because current maps are flawed and are based on census tract data rather than actual addresses. People have come forward and said that the map shows their neighborhood has broadband but they don’t, Metzger said.
Assemblyman Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, is pushing for the law because lack of internet service is one of the most prevalent complaints he gets from his Adirondack constituents. Reliable broadband is a top priority, he said, and is essential to grow the economy.
It is unclear if Cuomo, who has envisioned all of New York having broadband access, will sign the bill. It has yet to be delivered to him. A Cuomo spokesman, Richard Azzopardi, said the legislation is under review. The lawmakers and officials throughout the Adirondacks emphasized that internet service has never been more critical. During this year’s pandemic, when people were forced to work and study remotely and government meetings were conducted over Zoom links, broadband became a necessity. Even in places already served, heavy use has frozen computer screens.
“I have a daughter in college,” said Chesterfield Supervisor Clayton Barber, who lives in Keeseville. “Me and my wife have to get off our phones for her to use her laptop.”
Complaint letters to the governor and the PSC about Charter, Frontier and other companies serving the Adirondacks are common. Many claim that Charter fails to meet terms of its government agreements. Several complain that the company has insisted that customers spend thousands of dollars to link to its network.
A writer from Inlet stated that Spectrum quoted a price of $15,000 to gain access. “I was told by one of their reps because there was no guarantee of business generated, they would not invest in their own infrastructure,” the complaint said.
A writer from Dolgeville, just outside the western boundary of the Adirondack Park, complained of a cost of $16,000 to connect because Spectrum’s line stopped 1,800 feet from the writer’s house. “Understanding that our children need it for school etc. so we took out a personal loan for that amount and construction was completed,” the writer said. The company refused to provide an itemized bill.
John Frey, Inlet’s town supervisor, said he petitioned Spectrum for information on where it plans to expand in his region and was dismayed to learn the company planned to hook up residences close to its current customer base and “not the last mile.”
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Robin Hill, executive director of the Central Adirondacks Partnership for the 21st Century Inc., a forum to deal with regional concerns, said Charter’s expansion plans in the Town of Webb appear to amount to zero new connections. Before the July 2019 agreement Charter made with the PSC, the company seemed to be on track to add 600 to its network in the region, Hill said. The area encompasses the Fulton Chain of lakes, including First, Second, Third and Fourth lakes.
Some technically savvy residents of the Adirondacks are trying to fill the gap. One way is to purchase a high-power, business-class connection from Charter and share the line with others by sending a signal from a small tower. Dennis Hudson, an independent IT professional in Inlet, and his local partner Matt Miller of Eagle Wireless, who also runs a pizza shop called the Screamen Eagle, are sharing a line with multiple addresses. A few customers on Seventh Lake are gaining broadband that way and the partners plan to expand into Fourth Lake.
“We are just trying to help the community,” said Miller, who expects to have 20 to 30 customers by next summer. The partners charge $50 monthly for 50 megabits of speed going into the house and 5 megabits going out. Fred Engelmann, who runs Rainmaker Network Solutions and Adirondack Internet in Chestertown, has been plugging holes in service to remote lake homes for several years. Using a line purchased from a provider like Charter, he transmits a signal via microwave radios. He has set up points of transmission that send broadband over the water to Glen Burnie and Gull Bay on Lake George, to the northern point of Raquette Lake and, recently, to 10 camps on the west side of Kiwassa Lake near Saranac Lake. Charter has been expanding access in the Lake George area and has lured away about 30 of his customers there, he said.
He said most customers don’t need the 100 megabits of high-speed broadband the PSC is requiring of Charter in its mandated expansion. “I Zoom all day long on 6 megabits,” Engelmann said. Even if multiple people are online in a residence, 20 to 25 megabits is plenty, he said.
Some homes bordered by mountains have difficulty getting connections, Engelmann said, and those homeowners may have to wait until low-orbiting satellites are available to reach them.
On Blood Hill Road in Elizabethtown, Charter is providing great service, said Bucciarelli, who is expecting a refund of $3,737 from the internet provider to cover his share of the costs for the 2018 connection.
Since then, he had been paying Charter $100 a month for internet, TV and telephone service, until the company upped the cost of the package to $300 and his wife cut the TV option. He said he never expected to get his startup money back and credits town officials’ due diligence.
“I guess Spectrum saw the light,” he said.
Explore More: Information on New York’s “Broadband for All” program is available online at: on.ny.gov/3cZXLI2