Every month, Olive town board member Jim Sofranko gives a progress report on his attempts to bring better broadband Internet access to his town, where some areas are still only served by dial up. He said it was all part of the due diligence needed in reaching a new municipal franchise agreement with Time Warner, the local cable provider.
“We decided to focus on identifying the needs of our community,” Sofranko said in a recent interview. “We finalized a survey a year ago and found two areas in real need of improvement. There was no cable connection in Samsonville, and no cell service there as well. The company responded by doing some work out on Brown’s Road.”
Sofranko, and others on the Olive Town Board — as well as throughout the region where Internet isn’t always as good as one needs these days to do business from home — have been paying attention to the Broadband For All efforts talked about by the state and federal government in recent years. The amounts discussed range between a New York level of $500 million to billions on a national level. Stateside, funds were secured from settlements that followed the economic collapse of the past decade; on a federal level, moneys were found as part of the economic stimulus package of 2009.
But how is all this money being spent, if at all? And what kind of effect is it having.
Sofranko spoke about how he’s been told about matching grants that cable providers could use to get above the 20 houses per mile standard for providing service in rural areas. But the costs for access still remain “exorbitant” in such cases, he added. As for phone lines, he noted that current DSL access through Verizon “is very slow for current needs.”
To date, the process has taken nearly two years, Sofranko added.
There have been unrealized promises, such as a 2010 press release from Ulster County on how it was going after Google Fiber to get its online speeds up. Or the past year’s pushing of broadband funding proposals into the state’s massive Regional Economic Development and Consolidated Funding process, with large amounts promised but little explanation, at least publicly, on how the large amounts being discussed actually get spent.
Back and forth
A lot of words have been spent. Offering a history of broadband initiatives in Ulster County this past week, county Comptroller Elliott Auerbach noted a 2012 resolution supporting applications to the Connect NY Broadband Grant for broadband service to the towns of Denning, Wawarsing, Hardenburgh, and Rochester; a 2014 State of the County address request from County Executive Mike Hein to the Ulster County Legislature to set policy on “some important issues still facing Ulster County including Broadband expansion and improving internet access for county residents”; a request from the legislature later that same year “that the county executive develop a plan…and the plan should include a one year, two year and five year plus proposal for broadband expansion”; and resolutions and letters directed to the state Public Service Commission this year directing Verizon to provide high speed fiber optic internet across Ulster County.
The latter, by the way, included a note from the owner of DragonSearch in Kingston about how it became impossible for her to effectively run her business and had to pay a private company to install fiber optic lines.
In addition, the county put out a Request for Proposals for “the professional services of a qualified and experienced consulting firm(s) to conduct a comprehensive broadband assessment in the County and develop a feasibility study…to provide a detailed analysis of existing broadband services and current gaps and provide actionable, feasible guidance for the planning and implementation of a comprehensive community broadband improvement initiative.”
And, “The goal is to identify areas of the county with little or no service and with state grant funding and partnerships with broadband companies, provide coverage to those areas. Remote rural areas of Ulster County are typically where there is little or no broadband at present,” read a press release on the initiative, to be spearheaded by County Deputy Planning Director Chris White. “We recognize that broadband service has become as essential as electricity and water and sewer for economic development and that if we want to attract high-tech jobs, if we want to provide students opportunities for education and provide equal access to services to people across the county, having high-speed broadband is absolutely critical at this point.”
Auerbach added that the money that the county is relying on “is coming from the Governor’s fund (the New NY Broadband Program) and is a dollar for dollar match. I would expect that the Legislature would create a Capital Project once it is determined which direction the County will go. This way they can satisfy the match and have the working capital to finance any future projects while awaiting the reimbursement from Albany.”
No comment from companies
So does that mean actual disbursements for new fiber wire to Verizon or Google, or cable from Time Warner?
According to Pew Foundation and other research into federal programs dating back six years now, about half of all that was promised was never used due to timeline stipulations and other controls placed on things by Congress.
In a report for the MIT Technology Review by New Yorker writer James Surowiecki published this past June, it was noted how Verizon investors had balked at applying its FIOS wiring to more homes, and fiber was only accessible in three percent of the nation. Attempts by municipalities to do it themselves were running into legal problems…and the only good news the author was seeing was coming from Google Fiber, which had pushed ahead as a means of pushing its other products and “disrupting” what Surowiecki described as a stagnant market otherwise.
Locally, Verizon has refused to comment about FIOS in the Hudson Valley publicly, beyond some talk at a regional meeting where there was vague mention of union difficulties. Or actual in-the-field workers noting that “you shouldn’t expect it any time soon.”
Calls and emails to the company, and Time Warner Cable, were not returned for this article.
“What we know here in Olive that it’s hard for anyone without good Internet to do work, school, real estate, or handle medical needs,” Sofranko added. “What we have moves like molasses, and it’s not cheap either.”
Talk about a situation ready to give.