Access to high-speed Internet is just as crucial to economic development today as electricity was 100 years ago.
It is even more important in rural areas like the Adirondack Region, where a commute is often complicated by distance and weather.
The largest economic engines of the region used to be mining, lumbering and agriculture — and associated industries. But as those employers slowly evaporated, so too did jobs, and many families moved away. As a result, school enrollments have dwindled, giving way to mostly second homeowners instead of full-time residents.
After obtaining high school degrees, children are often forced to trade the great quality of life here in the Adirondack Park for better-paying urban jobs. Many move away for college or military service and never return.
One answer to our economic deficit is telecommuting — working from home for a company out of town, the park, the state or even the country. Telecommuting is a great way to give people a chance to live and make a living in the Adirondack Region, and companies worldwide are starting to take notice.
Telecommuting is personally satisfying — often allowing the worker more family face time — and environmentally responsible — making it a near perfect fit for this region of New York state.
To allow it, however, companies and employees need access to a reliable and comprehensive network of high-speed broadband.
The problem for Internet providers such as Time Warner Cable and Charter Communications, however, is the high cost of reaching all household in remote Adirondack communities. While there are several forms of broadband available in the park — such as cable, satellite and DSL — fiber optic is preferred because it offers much faster data transmission speeds.
But local communities can band together and help in the process, thanks to a federal program. The USDA was a forerunner in advocating for rural communities to be supplied with electricity in 1935 through the Rural Electrification Administration. Today it offers grants for bringing broadband services to rural communities.
In the town of Keene, local officials brought broadband to town with the “High Peaks Education Foundation” project, allowing residents to connect to high-speed Internet.
The goal for bringing broadband to the town of Keene was to give access to more jobs, enabling more families to live in the community and enroll more children in the local public school. The initiative is a win-win, giving children a great quality of life and new opportunities for learning and parents the ability to make a living here while spending more time with their kids.
The initiative with the locally owned Internet service provider, Keene Valley Video and Internet, rebuilt the old CATV plant and expanded the network using fiber-to-the-home technology. Currently 97 percent of year-round homes in the town have access to broadband if they want it, and 80 percent of second homeowners can get broadband. Forty percent are now connected.
Keene Valley Central School has also benefitted, and residents now have availability to technology like Voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP), a group of technologies for the delivery of voice communications and multimedia sessions over the Internet. Replacing land lines, VOIP saves money.
The project cost the town $11,500 per mile, only one-third of normal industry estimates. Keene now has the most widespread network in the Adirondack Park.
Others should do the same, if they can.
To expedite the process, town officials should gather data on how many people are interested in the service, and how many currently have access. That information is crucial when applying for grants.
There are some stigmas employers must consider before looking into telecommuting. For one, their industry must be able to manage the productivity of the employees while they are working outside of the office. Trust in employees is a major facet.
One not-for-profit organization — Adirondack Teleworks — can aid with the process, connecting companies offering telecommuting jobs with employees of the region.
Bill Murphy with Adirondack Teleworks said the organization hopes to educate people living in the most remote areas of the Adirondack Park, like Hamilton County, about working via the Internet.
Telecommuting is certainly not the sole piece of the economic puzzle in the tourism-dependant Adirondacks, but if more broadband access is available, it could encourage visitors to stay longer while providing jobs for people who never want to leave.