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Report finds half of roads in Durham, in Greene County, aren’t wired for broadband internet

In much of America, the availability of online video is often frustrated by slow broadband speeds.
WAMC photo by Dave Lucas
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In much of America, the availability of online video is often frustrated by slow broadband speeds.

The lack of broadband and how to fix it is the focus of a recent study impacting the Greene County town of Durham.

More than half of homes and businesses in Durham lack access to broadband, at a time when many municipalities are classifying high speed internet access as a basic right, like a utility.

Durham’s approximately 2,700 residents, including homes and businesses, are dealing with expensive, slow wi-fi "hot spot" devices running via cellular networks, themselves offering spotty service in the small town, or expensive satellite internet, while some still limp online via dial-up services. Broadband consultant Rosemary O'Brien led the Broadband Working Group of Durham Connect to research and release the report.

"We have a total when we looked at it, we looked at the business file, we have a total of 193 businesses 56% of them are serviced with wired broadband and another 44% are not serviced with wired broadband," O'Brien said. "We have about 120 miles of roads, 49 of those miles or unserved with wired broadband. So and in terms of people, it looks to me, when I review my numbers here, that we have about just shy of 60% of all addresses are served with wired broadband, and the other 40% plus are not served with wired broadband."

O'Brien says the cost of wiring roads is not cheap, with estimates ranging between $25,000 a mile up to $50,000 a mile or more depending on what's required to run wires and obtain permissions from other utilities that actually own poles.

"At the end of the day, when you have a rural community with rolling hills and houses setback and forest, and things like that on what used to be, you know, on big subdivisions that are surrounded by trees these days, they can't use their cellular services. Another issue we have the main highways, Route 23, there are parts of Route 23, that run through Durham, that don't have cell service," O'Brien said. "So cellular alternatives weren't working there. at the end of the day. They're looking at fiber as a methodology to improve not only the broadband in the town, but also cellular in the town."

New York Congressman Antonio Delgado has introduced various pieces of legislation to improve broadband across the 19th district, which includes Greene County. The Democrat has characterized access to rural broadband as "an urgent crisis.”

"If you're a small business owner, you're trying to figure out how to sustain yourself through these challenging times, you might want to have broadband access. If you're a homeowner or a parent, you're trying to figure out how to make sure your young ones are able to educate themselves, you might want to have broadband access. If you're a senior who's trying to figure out how to get telemedicine, you might want to have broadband access," said Delgado.

O'Brien cites a big stumbling block to that access for Durham: some of the satellite companies have previously received federal funding to provide service in the area, as determined by Census count.

"Once a census block has gotten monies it can't get monies again, unless the provider can no longer provide the speed," O'Brien said. "And then that's the whole question. For the longest time, the government allowed the providers to report a census block as having service if only one house in the block was served. So you could have you know, 50 houses within a block, 10 of them actually are, are on roads that are passed by the provider. And he gets to report that block as being served."

In its report Durham Connect is proposing the town board spend the next six or eight months evaluating the possibilities and opportunities for getting the town wired, and arrive at a conclusion by mid-2022 in hopes of securing blanket high-speed broadband by 2024.

"So they may feel that 2024 is too aggressive, unreal, they of course have to run through I'm sure they're going to want to talk to the county legislator from Durham and figure out what's realistic and be able to sync up what the county's timeline looks like," O'Brien said. "So what we're talking, we're still talking a couple of years here, this is not going to happen overnight."

O'Brien says the board could begin to put forth resolutions as early as tonight's 7:30 meeting.

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