Broadband aims for county’s last mile

Broadband aims for county’s last mile
Photo Courtesy of the Washington County Planning Department. A 2018 map of the awarded broadband service providers in Washington County. Purple is Hudson Valley Wireless, Yellow is Hughes Network Systems, pink is Slic Network Solutions and green is Verizon.

Photo Courtesy of the Washington County Planning Department. The WashConnect logo.

An effort to locate, identify and assist households in Washington County struggling with broadband accessibility is aiming to target “the last mile.”

WashConnect is the initiative, and Washington County director of economic development Laura Oswald is spearheading the movement of fiber deployment throughout the county following Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 2015 New York Broadband-For-All Program’s initial announcement.

“The (WashConnect) project started as a result of the fact that we’re coming to the end of the deployment of all of the broadband for all awards that were put out by New York State,” Oswald said. “So as we’re finalizing the last of the providers who are deploying fiber, we have concluded that despite the awards that were made through the program, we still have some significant areas across the county that are underserved.”

The survey is tentatively scheduled to run into the end of July and beginning of August, with 1,500 responses submitted in the first week. Oswald is aiming for a 10% response rate throughout the 24,000 households in Washington County.

The total $500 million awarded statewide in New York was distributed in three phases to providers. In Washington County, 7,358 locations were addressed with a total investment of $41,735,881 deployed in the municipalities that make up the county.

“Overall, of an available $500 million in state funding available to invest across 62 counties in New York State, Washington County will see a total investment of $24,506 million (three times greater than if funding were simply divided up per county). Four providers that submitted bids were selected by the state to receive funding to increase access to broadband service in the County: SLIC Network Solutions, Hudson Valley Wireless, Verizon and Hughes Network Systems,” a March 2018 summary by Washington County’s Planning Department said.

“State funding was made available for up to 80% of the projected costs for bidders’ projects.

Additionally, $170 million in funding from the Connect America Fund (CAF) was added to the program for designated eligible census blocks making a total of $670 million in State funding available to invest. Projects that included CAF funding could request up to 70% funding.”

However, despite the progress made, many Washington County and North Country constituents are still suffering.

Enter Oswald.

“We’ve decided at the beginning of this year that the only way that we were going to be able to get those areas served is to, on our own, not through New York State, map and identify those areas that are still without coverage or who have inadequate coverage,” Oswald said.

The global pandemic provided a harsh dose of reality for all aspects of life and working. Having a fast and reliable broadband connection is a necessity in today’s society, according to Oswald.

“We’re in constant touch with the state legislators, and they’re very much advocating for increasing the penetration of broadband. Certainly, the last year of COVID has highlighted how critical that is, when you have school districts across the county deploying hotspots so the kids could sit in cars outside in horrible weather and do homework because it’s the only way they could do it,” she said.

“We are seeing less brick-and-mortar medical facilities in the county which means that we’re going to start seeing an increased dependence on some sort of level of healthcare through broadband. The other thing that we’ve seen during the pandemic is we have a lot of second-homes in the county and we are also seeing an increased use of Airbnb. So we saw a lot of people from more urban areas staying up here and we have seen inquiries from people that say, ‘Hey, as our workforce moves more and more remote, I could live up here and commute to work electronically,’ but that only works if you have broadband. So, we absolutely know that the demand for it is critical and we need to have it and that we have significantly inadequate coverage right now.”

Oswald was honest by saying the mapping and service of every single needy household will not be able to occur, but the more clusters of target areas identified will do wonders for areas that are deprived of broadband.

“Once we have mapped those areas that might be surrounded by another provider, the first thing that we’ll do is, where does it make sense? If you have an area of 20 homes that are surrounded by Spectrum, we’re going to go talk to Spectrum and see what it is going to take to get service increased, maybe it’s Verizon, or maybe it’s Slic, whoever the provider is,” Oswald said. “If the cost appears to be prohibitive for them to do it, then the next step is going to be to start putting together grant applications to assist them to get that fiber deployed where it is cost-prohibitive otherwise.”

Acknowledging the deficiencies throughout the North Country, Oswald said she is more than willing to have conversations with surrounding counties on how they can join forces to serve their constituents.

“That effort is also, I will say, all across the North Country. We are in conversations with Essex, Hamilton, St. Lawrence and Clinton counties who are all experiencing the same issues that we do,” Oswald said. “We do not intend to let the border stop us. If it makes sense to put in an application that might be a joint application with Essex or Warren County or a neighboring county because it’s more cost-effective for the provider to do it that way, then that’s how we’re going to address it.”

Here is the link to fill out the survey: https://www.washingtoncountybroadband.com/