State, SLIC listen to broadband build-out comments

Michael Hopmeier, the president of Unconventional Concepts, a small engineering consulting company working out of an old missile silo in Lewis, puts the stenographer to work as he rapidly laid out the lack of communication, clarity and coverage from his current internet provider, HughesNet, and the state broadband office. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

ELIZABETHTOWN — Residents and town supervisors from Thurman to Keeseville told representatives from the state broadband office at a public hearing on Friday how frustrated they are with the current state of broadband on the eastern side of the North Country, and asked representatives from SLIC Network Solutions to bring their company’s internet and cell phone coverage to their neighborhoods.

Though the focus of the hearing was Empire State Development’s proposed $26 million SLIC broadband project expanding access to 4,610 customers in Clinton, Essex, Franklin and St. Lawrence counties, the conversation drifted around to all aspects of broadband coverage — or the lack thereof — in the eastern Adirondacks.

This project will require laying 865 miles of fiber optic cable and ESD has offered SLIC a grant of $18,492,929 for the expansion.

In 2015, Gov. Andrew Cuomo promised New Yorkers 99.9 percent broadband access by 2018 through the $500 million Broadband for All program.

Shaun Gillilland, the supervisor of the town of Willsboro, said this is a personal issue between the governor and the citizens he represents.

“The state made a promise and you’re all here expecting them to carry through on that promise, and I think what we’re finding is that that promise is falling very short,” Gillilland said.

The issue was also deeply personal for Deborah Virella, of New Russia, who shared that she has a life-threatening heart condition that requires her heart is monitored every second of the day. In March, she had an updated device implanted in her heart, but upon returning home learned she can no longer connect her phone to the implant because the medical device has updated technology beyond what she has access to.

Missile message

In three minutes, Michael Hopmeier, the president of Unconventional Concepts, a small engineering consulting company in Lewis, laid out the problems he sees with the broadband build-out and exactly what he wants to learn from the state.

Speaking at breakneck speed, Hopmeier described how he started digging with town supervisors to see how the state broadband agency was handling its plans and programs.

“I found as an engineer and a person with a background in communications and testing evaluation, that the information that they were providing was completely unrefined,” Hopmeier said. “We were getting broad, vague numbers like ’99 percent coverage.'”

He said he compiled a list of questions: 99 percent coverage of what? What exactly did they mean by “broadband?” Why were the contracts issued to the companies that they were? Then he and the supervisors filed a Freedom of Information Law request to the state for answers.

“The gist of the responses we received was either no answer, ‘We won’t answer that,’ or the answers made very little sense,” Hopmeier said.

This lack of information concerned him, especially since the state is spending “huge amounts of money” on the project.

“My concerns boiled down to: one, ‘How are they measuring what they are doing? Two, is there an audit going on? Is there an attempt to review and determine whether those standards and goals are actually being met? And then three, what actions will actually be taken to correct any problems if we can find them,” Hopmeier said.

His company bought an old missile silo north of Lewis around three years ago and have been hooked up to HughesNet, a satellite internet provider, which he said can not provide the capabilities his team needs.

“From a technical point of view, the service provided by Hughes[Net] is totally technically unacceptable and there is nothing that they can do to change it,” Hopmeier said. “If all we were interested in was sending email and watching movies it probably would have worked.

“The ability and capability to extend data is truly the backbone of today’s world,” Hopmeier said, citing his background in combat weapons systems testing and technical engineering. “One of the leading limitations that we have trying to develop and expand the work that we want to do at the missile silo is the lack of that communication.”

Hopmeier said he is sending some work to facilities in Virginia and Florida to get it done.

Hughes problem

One of the main problems with the broadband build-out brought up by many of the public speakers was HughesNet, which is spreading to many towns, sometimes becoming the sole internet choice.

Lewis town Supervisor James Monty was frustrated that Lewis and Elizabethtown were given two of the largest pools of money in Phase 3 of the statewide build-out, but the funds went to HughesNet, which he says is a dead end.

“HughesNet is not broadband,” Monty said. “I just think it’s a gross waste of public funds to use something that isn’t going to work.”

Satellite, everyone said, is not the way of the future. It can be blocked by mountains and trees, and fiber optics can carry much higher speeds.

Maggie Bartley, who runs public relations for the Elizabethtown and Lewis Chamber of Commerce said the fiber optic infrastructure already exists. In fact, she said, many local residents live within eyesight of fiber optic cables. Dark fiber optic cables running down state Route 9N cross right through front yards, but property owners cannot have access to them because the lines are owned by companies that don’t service that area.

Bartley said broadband companies and towns should make a deal and, “light up that fiber.”

There were few answers at the hearing, it was just meant for the state and SLIC to listen to public comments. These comments will be taken into consideration as they move forward with their project and many attendees said they wished SLIC could build into their towns, giving them an option outside of their current providers.