Upstate New York doesn’t need another reason to feel aggrieved. The statistics three years ago were disheartening. Approximately 30 percent of New York addresses, mostly upstate, were stuck on the wrong side of the digital divide. North of New York City and Long Island, according to the state broadband program office, over 35 percent of New Yorkers lacked access to broadband technology. They were denied access to the information superhighway that other New Yorkers took for granted.
That’s changed. The prospects for robust rural broadband have improved considerably. At the completion of the third round of broadband rollout, for which state funds were budgeted last year, the goal of “broadband for all” New Yorkers will be within reach. According to the state broadband office, almost 99 percent of all New Yorkers will get access to broadband available at a speedy 100 megabits per second or greater. In the year 2000, five percent of that standard was considered high-speed.
The near-universal availability of broadband is going to make a big difference to the customers of MTC, a local broadband company headquartered in Margaretville that used to be — and still is — a telephone company. Growth in usage of the high-capacity broadband fiber that the company has installed has been exponential. Company general manager Glen Faulkner says data consumption by his 6000 present customers has been doubling every 16 months. Ten percent of the customers are using a million megabytes a month. It’s estimated that the average household will soon host ten Internet-connected devices.
More than 20 years ago, said Faulkner, 96 percent of the company’s customers were users of regulated telephone services. No longer. In 1996 the Margaretville Telephone Company bought the local cable system. The proportion of telephone-only customers is now down to 20 percent.
The nature of the MTC customer base has changed over time, too. Between half and 60 percent of MTC’s customers get their bills in the New York metropolitan area.
The availability of broadband creates other forms of value. Faulkner cited estimates from people in the local real-estate industry that broadband capability can make a difference of as much as $20,000 in a home’s market value.
“The Catskills have done amazingly well getting broadband,” said Ray Pucci, president of the Delaware County Chamber of Commerce (Faulkner is now the organization’s board chair). “It’s a compelling story.” Other rural parts of the state have lagged behind, he said.
MTC has had strong local partners, such as the Delhi Telephone Company and the member-owned non-profit Delaware County Electrical Cooperative. The Catskill Watershed Corporation has provided it low-interest loans and matching funds. “We don’t have more to ask,” explained Larry Roadman, chairman of the MTC board whose family has owned the company for four generations. MTC is now being converted into an employee-owned entity.
The job for the region’s political representatives is now to protect the Albany funding that has already been awarded but not yet deployed, Roadman said.
In its rollout of rural broadband, MTC has gotten ten rounds of state funding. The first four were Empire State Development awards. The most recent six involved matching money from the state broadband program (plus some federal help).
According to the state broadband office, the third and final statewide round of projects will bring broadband to 2258 Ulster County locations that didn’t have it before. Total investment will be $4.4 million, $1.57 million from the state and $2.78 million from the providers plus a modest federal grant.
Hughes Network Systems, LLC, a broadband satellite network provider owned by EchoStar, will provide most of the new Ulster County broadband. MTC’s fiber serves the northwestern Ulster County town of Hardenburgh and part of Shandaken. A total investment in the two townships of just over two million dollars — 45 percent of the county dollar total — will assure broadband service to 413 locations.
Other Ulster County municipalities to benefit the most from satellite broadband in the third state project round are Wawarsing (410 locations), Denning (385), Town of Ulster (203), Rochester (192), City of Kingston (119), Saugerties (112) and Marlborough (103). Olive has 69 locations, Hurley 67, Woodstock 53, Gardiner 36, New Paltz ten, and Rosendale and Lloyd zero.
WTC’s focus on providing universal broadband access by fiber to rural New York upstate communities makes it sort of a specialist among communications providers. With the latest round of financing support, state records indicate that MTC will be providing access to broadband services to 9814 locations: 7216 in Delaware County, 1278 in Greene County, 867 in Schoharie County, 413 in Ulster and 45 in Sullivan.
In implementing the state broadband plan, MTC will be expanding both within its home county but also in underserved low-population communities in the surrounding counties.
In southwestern Greene County’s mountaintop region, Lexington is one such community. With a population density of about ten people per square mile, in the 2010 census it boasted a population of 805, and the 2016 census estimate is that number is now down to about 775. By any business standard, the town doesn’t seem an ideal market for reasonably priced broadband. According to state broadband office records, MTC will be serving 871 Lexington locations, more than there are permanent residents.
MTC will also serve 304 locations in Jewett (pop. 953) and 103 in Halcott (pop. 258). Ensuring these three sparsely populated Greene County townships broadband capability involved state grants of four million dollars and private and federal commitments of $6.7 million.
Eighty-five years and two weeks ago, the U.S. Congress passed legislation creating the Tennessee Valley Authority, often cited as a model of a regional catalyst that led to extensive successful economic development. The TVA served as a public utility. It involved a considerable public investment that paid long-term social dividends.
Community organizer Bonnie Blader was a happy camper when I talked to her early Tuesday afternoon, May 29. As we spoke, an estimated 2400 short utility poles in Lexington were being replaced as a prelude to the installation of broadband. The local folks were waving to the trucks and bringing cookies to the power guys. Blader reported that people in town had been laughing at her all week because she had cried when she saw the work being done. Glen Faulkner had consoled her, saying that someone at MTC had been crying, too.
Lexington was the mouse which had roared, Blader explained. The extensive community work required an amazing effort, she said. Well over half the town signed a Survey Monkey instrument pleading for broadband.
After Lexington was rejected in the second round of state funding for broadband deployment, 50 people had crowded into a small church in town to sing “Second Round Woes,” their adapted version of “Second Hand Rose” (See lexingtonbroadband.org). Documentary filmmaker Kashka Glowacka, who had become a weekender because she couldn’t run her business in town as a full-time resident, sent the video to the state broadband office, where it became sort of a sensation. Now broadband is being installed and Glowacka has moved back to Lexington full-time.
As many of today’s Catskills leaders see the deployment of broadband, there was no alternative to making the considerable investment required. “In today’s economy, high-speed broadband is no longer a luxury, it is a necessity,” argued a recent communication from the state broadband program office. “Access to broadband continued to redefine how we provide education and healthcare, manage energy, assure public safety, and how we store, access and share information.”
That’s the argument. New York State has decided that access to high-quality broadband is a service to which all residents are entitled. The bet has been placed, and the final rural rollout is well under way. We should know within a decade how well it will have paid off.