Photo provided via Office of the Governor of the State of New York
More than $31.5 million in grants have been awarded to North Country internet service providers in the latest round of broadband grants announced by the state last week. Nearly a dozen communities in Clinton and Essex counties will benefit from the New NY Broadband Initiative, which aims to fully wire the state with broadband by the end of 2018. Pictured above: Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivers comments in Potsdam on Aug. 3, 2016.
WESTPORT — At least 12,300 homes and businesses across the North Country will benefit from the latest round of state broadband grants.
About 4,000 homes in Willsboro, Essex, Jay, Wilmington, Keene and Westport have been included in last week’s funding package, according to the state Broadband Program Office.
Ten service providers are tapped to receive grants as part of the $31.5 million package, the second round of funding as part of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s push to fully wire the state by the end of 2018.
WILLSBORO AND ESSEX
At least 164 homes in Essex and 394 in Willsboro will receive service, said Herb Longware, of Cable Communications of Willsboro, which received $226,184 in grant funding.
Service in the area has historically been patchwork, and residents and businesses in the underserved area were interrupted last summer when signals from a radio tower interfered with an antenna by a local provider on Rattlesnake Mountain.
Subscribers will be offered a minimum download speed of 25 megabytes per second, which is mandated as part of the state agreement. An expansion of fiber networks in the existing franchise area will offer clients up to 100 mbps — among the fastest in the state.
Longware said work has already started.
“We’re starting today to do things to provide service to those areas,” Longware told the Sun last Wednesday.
As part of the build-out, providers are required to work with utility companies to make room for their gear on their poles.
Longware said he expected work to progress expeditiously, including the evaluation of infrastructure and existing facilities.
Some gear may have to be moved, he said.
“We’ve gone through this many times in the past and we’ve always had a good relationship with NYSEG and Verizon,” Longware said.
Longware said he expected Cable Communications of Willsboro to enter into a formal agreement with state soon to firm up the exact numbers of homes, he said.
Willsboro Point is among the areas that stand to be served, Longware said.
Rep. Elise Stefanik, the town’s most high-profile resident, applauded the funds and said increasing access to broadband is a “key economic priority for our region.”
It’s unclear if the lawmaker’s home stands to benefit from the upgrades.
A spokesman said Stefanik uses Verizon 4G for internet at her home in Willsboro and “knows the importance of bringing broadband to homes and farms across the rural parts of our district.”
The Chazy and Westport Telephone Company received $2,821,185 for 233 homes in Westport, and 67 in Chazy.
CEO Jim Forcier said the grant will allow the provider to offer fiber high-speed gigabit service in their existing service area.
“There’s virtually no places that will have not have fiber to their home and gigabit service,” Forcier said.
The project is a two-year undertaking.
“We anticipate putting boots on the ground the next week or the week after,” he said. “There should be no make-ready work at all.”
TOUGH TO PINPOINT
Details are still emerging and are hard to pinpoint in other localities, in part, owing to the application process, which saw service providers bid on underserved U.S. Census blocks across the state.
Jay is slated to receive $1,880,212 as part of a $2,349,174 project that will serve at least 1,174 homes.
Supervisor Archie Depo said he was unaware of the latest round.
“I’m going to be looking into it, and will reach out to the governor’s office to see if I can get more information,” said Depo, noting the town had been the recipients of past broadband grant funding.
Keene will see nearly $1 million in investment to serve 466 homes, but further information was not immediately available.
Funding was also announced for Black Brook, Ausable, Chazy, Mooers and Altona, with service slated for at least 1,113 residents.
Communications giant Frontier Communications received $7,304,640 for two projects in the North Country, but it remains unclear which towns would be served.
“Broadband expansion is vital in today’s world and we are extremely pleased to be a part of and support this important program,” Andy Malinoski, a Frontier spokesman, told the Sun.
Slic Network Solutions received $3,746,744 for two projects.
Kevin Lynch, VP of Technical Operations, said the provider is “pleased by these announcements which will help us with our ongoing commitment to connect unserved areas of New York.”
“We are processing this information internally and planning our next steps,” Lynch told the Sun.
Slic has been a past beneficiary of past grant funds, and has spearheaded numerous projects across the region — including in Schroon Lake, where the provider is currently in the make-ready stage of the project.
But the process has been delayed, sparking frustration among residents, including seasonal residents who have said they would extend their stays in the vacation destination if only they had the proper infrastructure.
The most recent roadblock was because Slic did not immediately receive an expected round of private investment funding last summer, which pushed back the make-ready stage.
Lynch did not respond to an email asking if Slic now has the private financing necessary to move their next planned projects forward.
For the most recent rounds, the exact amount of private investment that needs to be leveraged with state funds for all providers is about $8.4 million — including at least $117,006 in Willsboro and Essex and $319,887 in Westport, according to materials provided by the governor’s office.
The number stands at about $1.4 million in Essex County.
Cable Communications of Willsboro and Chazy and Westport Telephone said private financing will not be an issue.
Longware said as part of the application process, the BPO examined the financial situations of the bidders.
“We have all of our finances in place,” Longware said, “and we had no problems with the amount of money we need to put in this project.”
Schroon Supervisor Mike Marnell told state lawmakers last week the state should impose a two-year window on grant awardees to get projects moving.
“Maybe there’s someone out there with finances to complete the project,” Marnell said.
Assemblyman Billy Jones (D-Chateaugay) cited a pair of grants secured in Franklin County four years ago.
“There’s not a shovel in the ground,” Jones said. “It’s unacceptable and embarrassing.”
NONE MORE CHALLENGING
Zooming outward, the most recent round of awards will provide 12,349 homes and businesses across the North Country, bringing the total public-private investment in the North Country to $40 million. The BPO is currently finalizing RFPs for the third and final round of funding, which will launch within 30 days.
That round will be complemented by $170 million in Connect America Funds, which was recently allocated to the state by the Federal Communications Commission.
Garry Douglas, head of the North Country Chamber and Co-Chair of the North Country Regional Economic Development Council, said access to broadband across the region was identified six years ago as a key strategic priority for the local economy.
A public-private partnership was the only way to close large gaps in rural areas that could not be served otherwise, he said.
“No other region in the state had larger or more challenging territory to reach than the North Country,” said Douglas. “But at the same time, nowhere else had more to gain from access, from supporting home based and other needed business development in places like the Adirondacks to allowing critical new activities such as telemedicine and long distance learning.”
The state has set Dec. 31, 2018 as the deadline for the $500 million initiative, which is expected to exceed $1 billion when leveraged with private investment.