The importance of getting broadband service into underserved areas of the Adirondacks and North Country region was the focus of a recent forum in Plattsburgh.
In January 2018, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was in Plattsburgh to announce that phase three of a plan to reach 100 percent broadband coverage by 2019 across the state had begun. "From the state’s point of view it’s a chief economic issue. It’s an educational issue. It’s a health care issue. It’s an equity issue, it’s a fairness issue. Relatively we got it done in a short period of time you know about 4 years. The more isolated the area the harder obviously.”
A panel of state legislators and advocates appearing last week on the Mountain Lake PBS forum “Bridging the Digital Divide” say substantial gaps remain. 115th Assembly District Democrat D. Billy Jones has been appointed to a new Upstate Cellular Coverage Task Force, which will identify service gaps and make recommendations on how to close them. “Right now at the beginning of this cell phone task force we’re tackling the major routes in and out of areas here in the rural North Country and all over upstate. But there are a lot of areas here in the North Country that do not have cell service. We have to identify those areas.”
Among the challenges discussed during the forum was the Adirondack Park Agency’s strict zoning and a policy that requires cell towers be substantially invisible. Jones also noted that the task force is likely to recommend the governor put money in the budget to create subsidies that motivate companies to invest in the region. “We need to put higher towers here in the Adirondacks. We need to get over that tree line to get proper service to our residents and it’s going to be the quickest most efficient way. We’re talking about public safety.”
Republican state Senator Betty Little, of the 45th Senate District, is also a member of the task force: “We really can’t get into the future and to grow our year-round population unless we have cell coverage and broadband here. If we concede that towers within the Adirondack Park need to look like a tree. That’s a starting point for getting taller towers.”
Adirondack Mountain Club Executive Director Neal Woodworth brought up a practical consideration that brought the conversation back to the need for subsidies. “It’s not the aesthetics as much as the taller the tower, the more expensive the tower. And you can’t divorce the economics.”
Some steps have been taken to improve access. Woodworth pointed to a constitutional amendment passed by state voters that allows broadband lines to be placed near highways. "What this constitutional amendment permitted was the co-location or burying of new fiber lines, new broadband lines, within a certain distance of the highway. And that opened a lot of bottlenecks that prevented us from running the most advanced types of broadband line and cellular lines.”
Adirondack Action founding member Dave Wolfe says officials should approach installation of broadband and cellular technologies as a utility. “It’s kind of like food, shelter and broadband. It’s a necessity. The problem is with the current make up of the FCC I don’t think in the near future you’re going to see any support from the federal government to do a I’ll call it universal build out of fiber or coax. So it really comes down to the state of New York must do it on its own.”
Audio is courtesy of Mountain Lake PBS.