LAKE PLACID - Nearly 10 percent of homes in the Adirondacks currently lack access to any form of broadband internet service. Through a combination of federal grants and public-private partnerships, state officials are hoping to close that gap.
State Sen. Betty Little hosted a Broadband Summit at the High Peaks Resort May 21, drawing some of the biggest communications stakeholders in the region together to review the future of broadband access in the North Country.
Bill Johnson, the Assistant Deputy Director at the NYS Office of Cyber Security and Critical Infrastructure Coordination, explained how many of the homes of Little's six-county district, roughly 73 percent, already have access to some form of broadband service, defined as internet service with speeds of at least 768 kilobits per second.
About the same number of households is within the coverage area of wireless phone service providers with 3G capability, which allows wireless broadband internet connections on computers and hand-held devices.
Still, there are more than 14,000 households in the North Country with no access to either service. Most are in communities central to the Adirondacks.
"A lot of the unserved areas are very low density," Johnson explained; "up to 15 people per square mile."
Also, more than 40 percent of those unserved homes are understood to be seasonal homes.
Dr. Melodie Mayberry-Stewart, chair of the NYS Broadband Development and Deployment Council outlined some of the state's goals in bringing the state up to speed with other parts of the world in terms of its broadband network.
The goal is not only to make broadband more accessible to underserved areas, she explained, but also to encourage more households to utilize the service.
"It has to be affordable and they have to understand the value and how it will impact their lives," she said.
To make broadband more accessible and affordable, a series of grants have been made available through the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Round one of the grants was distributed last December and included projects to establish broadband networks in Jefferson, St. Lawrence, and Franklin Counties.
Several entities, both public and private, are currently submitting applications for Round 2 of the grants, which are expected to bring even more funds to the region.
Among those entities is CBN Connect, a private nonprofit devoted to expanding broadband in Clinton, Essex, and Franklin Counties. Howard Lowe, director of Economic Development at SUNY Plattsburgh, is president of its Project Advisory Board.
"We're committed to making sure that our rural areas have the broadband access to be competitive in the global marketplace," said Lowe, who noted broadband expansion is key to encouraging young people to stay in the region.
One of the growing trends among young people, Lowe said, is that many are becoming accustomed to "having their computer in their pocket" through 3G coverage.
"That's not doable in much of the region, and we have to find a way to make that happen if we're going to keep our communities sustainable."
Lowe said CBN Connect is currently working on a Telemedicine network that will connect hospitals in Saranac Lake, Malone, Elizabethtown, Plattsburgh, and St. Regis with a 260-mile ring of fiber-optic network line, some of which could be leased to internet service providers.
"We have the funds to begin building that network later this year," said Lowe, "maybe this fall."
CBN Connect Executive Director Julie West said the organization has also applied for a Round 2 grant in hopes of laying down new fiber through Warren, Washington, and Hamilton Counties.
"We will not be a service provider to end users," she explained. "We will be a transport for service providers to end users."
The proposal for the 1,023-mile loop is one of many projects throughout the North Country that will await announcement of the Round 2 grant awards, expected sometime this fall.