Hopeful, skeptical about broadband

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s promise to cover 100 percent of the North Country with high-speed internet access has some North Country residents hopeful, but disbelieving. That’s because the “last mile” of hard-to-reach customers may depend on technology that isn’t here yet, and the fine print of the state’s program contains an exemption from the 100 megabits-per-second download speed pledged.

Hughes Network Systems is slated to receive $15,426,269 in state money for its part in the broadband buildout. The satellite dish network has contracts to cover 75,638 locations from western New York through the Capital Region and the North Country.

Although NYS Broadband Now, in seeking grant fundees, stipulated a minimum download speed of 100 mbps, page 24 of its request for proposals allows for speeds of 25 mpbs in unserved areas — places where no broadband coverage is yet available.

However, customers in the Adirondacks say the 25 mbps offered by satellite often falls short.

Eric Lohrey, of Thurman, is a civil engineer who works with Clarkson University.

“Satellite is the only option where I live,” he said. While some people try to use their cellphones for internet access, “to do that you have to get a good signal, and we don’t have that here.”

Lohrey often works at home, so he needs 24/7 internet access. A Hughes Net customer, he describes the service as “not as bad as dial-up, but it’s definitely throttled.”

“Luckily, I can email files,” said Lohrey. “I don’t do a lot of videos, so it’s not a huge, huge file.”

Lohrey said the problem with Hughes Net is the data caps. Once a customer has used the contracted amount of data for the month, download speed is slowed for the rest of the month. Lohrey signed up for 30 gigabytes at $99.99 per month, although he got a deal for the first year at $69.99.

“I usually run out after two to three weeks,” said Lohrey. “They don’t shut you down, but they limit it to about 2 mbps.”

“The issue with Hughes Net is they’re not meeting minimum requirements,” said Lou Silvestre, CFO for Chazy & Westport Telephone. “They’re not even offering 25 mbps. We don’t know how they’re qualifying for the $15 million.”

However, Jason Conwall, a spokesperson for NY Broadband Now, said Hughes Net will employ new technology to raise its download speeds: “Hughes Net recently launched a new, state-of-the-art satellite that can provide download speeds of 25 mbps. Areas served by Hughes as part of the Round III awards will be utilizing this technology for high-speed Internet service. Under the terms of our grant, Hughes is required to provide this speed of Internet service.”

The Federal Communications Commission provides maps of broadband coverage by census block. However, Silvestre said Hughes Net hasn’t provided updated information on the census blocks it will cover. According to the FCC’s data, average speeds in the High Peaks region south of Saranac Lake run from 15 mpbs to 2 mbps (See https://broadbandmap.fcc.gov).

“Satellite has a bunch of issues you can’t get around,” said Fred Engelman of Rainmaker Network Solutions. “If you can’t see the satellite, it kills the signal.”

Lohrey said he’s getting by on the service he has. Three people can’t watch three movies on Netflix at the same time, he admits, but he doesn’t often need to do that.

“The question is, do people really need 100 mbps, or would they be delighted to have 3?” asked Engelmann. “I think a lot of people would say slower is better than none at all.”