QUEENSBURY - Local citizens, business owners and local officials in remote upstate regions should join together in lobbying the state and federal legislators to bankroll rural broadband infrastructure, government officials said this week.
At a broadband conference convened Aug. 19 by U.S. Rep. Scott Murphy (D-Glens Falls), a panel of government technology officials, politicians and communications technology developers agreed that broadband access is critical to not only the economic vitality of the Adirondacks, but for the very survival of rural communities across upstate New York.
Howard Lowe, president of not-for-profit broadband developer CBN Connect, told the audience that his company had submitted an application Aug. 19 for $22 million of federal stimulus money to fund their project providing core broadband infrastructure in a 425-mile loop through Essex, Franklin and Clinton counties, serving 22 communities.
This optic-cable circuit would stretch in an arch across northern New York from the St. Regis Mohawk reservation eastward through Malone and Routes Point, then south to Plattsburgh and Ticonderoga. This circuit is expected to be extended through rural Warren and Hamilton counties in a forthcoming second phase of the proposed buildout, according to a contract the counties signed just weeks ago with CBN Connect. This initial circuit includes a spur serving Lake Placid, Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake.
Lowe estimated that if the $22 million stimulus grant is approved, this initial broadband circuit could be operating as soon as spring 2011, and the Warren County extension six months or more later.
Served first would be the public entities, including libraries educational institutions, hospitals and clinics, and public safety authorities.
Various broadband carriers, Lowe said, would use this infrastructure - most all of it high-capacity 144-strand fiber-optic cable strung along utility poles - to carry their customers, both commercial and residential.
The participating commercial carriers - cable companies and telecoms - would build out the "last mile" to the homes and businesses they'd service, he said.
APA official vows cooperation
Although many view the Adirondack Park Agency as a major obstacle of this buildout - as they've vetoed or delayed the construction of many wireless telecom towers - an APA official said Wednesday they'd be fully cooperating with the broadband initiative.
In fact, the agency has already written a letter - submitted with the grant application - expressing strong support for the buildout, APA Special Assistant for Economic Affairs Stephen Erman said.
"The Park Agency is solidly behind this effort to get broadband throughout the Park," he said. "The extension of broadband is critical to the future of the Park's economy."
County chief: broadband is critical to survival
Warren County Board of Supervisors Chairman Fred Monroe described the situation in more dire terms.
"Our economy is in the worst shape I've seen it in more than 18 years, and our children are being left behind due to lack of broadband infrastructure and connectivity, he said. "This buildout must occur soon if our communities are to remain viable," he said.
Sharon Cates-Williams state Deputy Chief Information Officer, said that lack of broadband in a community would threaten their tourism activity.
"The widespread desire for broadband has now changed the definition of vacation planning," she said. "It's not just about finding sunny beaches, people demand broadband access where they stay."
Wednesday's conference included both positive and negative news about the prospects of the CBN Connect grant application being funded. The good news, local officials said, was that several of the people who will be reviewing the application for broadband grants - including Cates-Williams and Thomas Jenson of the US Dept. of Agriculture Rural Utilities Service - were in the room, hearing first-hand about the critical North Country connectivity needs.
The bad news, according to Murphy, was that some of the criteria for evaluating the broadband applications were skewed against rural communities. Murphy and 42 other representatives of rural regions have been lobbying to get those rules changed, he said.
The Obama administration has earmarked a total of $7.5 billion in stimulus funding for broadband development nationwide. This money would be awarded in tandem grants and loans through the federal Commerce and Agriculture departments.
Aug. 19 was the application deadline for the first round of federal stimulus funding to boost transmission of digital information across the nation. The next round has a deadline in December, and the final round, in March.
Warren and Hamilton counties signed a contract with CBN Connect just two weeks ago, and Washington county may be joining the two. The pact calls for CBN Connect to perform essentially the same services they provided for Essex, Franklin and Clinton counties. These tasks include conducting a broadband needs analysis, developing a conceptual network design, drafting detailed engineering plans and authoring a stimulus grant application for a broadband buildout that would serve dozens of communities. The interviews and research in the needs analysis phase will be starting next week, Monroe said.
Murphy said it was none too soon.
"Broadband access is critical to 21st Century jobs and to our communities all across upstate New York," he said. "We really need that infrastructure if we're going to see our small businesses thrive and keep our 20-somethings and young people from moving away - so I'm very excited about the work today and the prospects."