U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand introduced legislation last month to double annual funding for a federal broadband infrastructure program from $25 million to $50 million. Gillibrand is pictured here with New York Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul in Plattsburgh on Oct. 13, 2016.
Photo by Elizabeth Izzo
PLATTSBURGH — U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) wants to double the amount of federal broadband program funding and boost the amount of grants for underserved areas inside the Adirondack Park.
“Our communities cannot compete if they do not have access to high speed internet,” Gillibrand said last week in Plattsburgh.
Gillibrand introduced legislation last month with U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore (R-WV) to double annual funding for a federal Department of Agriculture broadband infrastructure program from $25 million to $50 million.
The senator also pledged to increase in rural and high-need areas the amount of grants possible from 50 percent to 75 percent of a project’s cost.
The lack of broadband, she said, leads to a competitive disadvantage for residents, health care providers and businesses, and is just as important as roads and electricity.
But it’s often cost-prohibitive for providers to expand into rural areas, where expansion costs escalate during the “last mile” of construction.
Gillibrand was joined by local service providers and elected officials, including Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul, who likened broadband to oxygen.
“If you don’t have it, you’re gasping for life,” Hochul said.
Gillibrand’s proposed bill does not yet have a House sponsor. But if one is found, and the Senate passes the legislation, the funds would immediately be made available.
“If we could pass it this year, it would be available right away,” Gillibrand said.
The proposed legislation joins the state’s New NY Broadband Program, which seeks to fully wire the state by the end of 2018 through a mix of public and private financing.
“We are absolutely on track to achieve that,” Hochul said. “A lot of other states are going to be far behind us, they’re not going to have achieved that goal by 2018.”
The most recent grant funds for that program were announced in August when $6.2 million was awarded to four telecommunications firms, allowing for what the state said would connect 134,000 additional homes and businesses.
A second round will address additional unserved and underserved homes and businesses, while the third and final phase of the program, designed to close out any remaining areas, is scheduled to launch in early 2017, according to the governor’s office.
Westelcom CEO James Forcier said his firm applied for some of that funding.
If awarded, he said the funds would allow the opportunity to revisit places in their current service area with low speeds and bulk up that infrastructure with fiber, which would improve the service.
The Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe, through their firm Mohawk Networks, recently completed a $15 million broadband project that laid 68 miles of fiber to serve Akwesasne residents.
A subsidiary, North Country Broadband, is currently deploying fiber in Lewis County by leveraging existing structures of 911 towers
Additional state and federal funds would allow the provider to expand their test markets.
“We will be seeking similar test customers in your market, and we will be happy to provide the much-needed internet to the folks who are not getting it right now,” said Director of Economic Development Christopher Thompson.
Slic Network Solutions has been one of the top recipients of state and federal grant funds, deploying numerous projects across Essex, Hamilton, St. Lawrence and Franklin counties since 2010, including Schroon, where work is currently underway after years of delays.
Financing is just one hurdle among others, said Slic Vice President of Technical Operations Kevin Lynch.
Weather poses a challenge during the installation process, as does selling the packages once the infrastructure has been installed.
“It takes some education, and it takes some outreach to understand the benefits broadband brings to them,” Lynch said.
PrimeLink CEO Greg MacConnell cited regulations and red tape, including those governing wetlands.
“It’d be great if we could lessen some of those,” he said.