N.Y.’s broadband buildout may be completed this year

The “last mile” for internet service providers to reach every household in New York state is going to be the hardest one to complete.

It may depend on a new use of an old technology: unused television frequencies, known as “whitespace.”

On Wednesday morning, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office will make an announcement naming the beneficiaries of the state’s Broadband Now third and final phase. Local proponents of rural broadband service are hoping to hear that the last swaths of the North Country will be covered.

While the state’s initiative has rolled out two phases to get everyone connected and federal programs have given internet providers a boost, reaching the most remote residents in the Adirondack Park faces two big problems: cost, and pole ownership.

The two problems are related since the poles used to carry fiber-optics or cables are owned by utility companies, private owners and municipalities. In order for networks to use the poles, they have to get permission from the pole owners, which is both expensive and time-consuming.

“New York state has impossibly high standards,” said Fred Engelmann, owner of Rainmaker Network Solutions. The network consulting service operates in several states including California, Tennessee and Mississippi, as well as in the Adirondacks.

Hamilton County shows up on national broadband maps as having less than 32 percent of residents able to access the internet. Franklin and Essex counties contain vast areas with few residents, with roughly 17,000 households yet to be covered in the last mile.

Broadband Now provides grants to help private network providers expand internet access, requiring grant applicants to provide download speeds of 100 megabytes per second — except in the most remote areas of the state, where 25 Mbps is acceptable — for $60 a month or less.

The Connect America Fund, a federal program, offered states grant assistance for the final mile of broadband buildout. Although combined federal and state grant support can cover up to 80 percent of the network provider’s building costs, there were few takers in the Adirondacks.

“The business model in rural areas is not conducive to providers clamoring to get in,” said Kevin Lynch, chief operating officer of Slic Network Solutions, based in Nicholville in St. Lawrence County.

Barb Rice, a Franklin County legislator and former Saranac Lake village trustee who has focused on broadband, said her county “took a very proactive role in soliciting providers” but still has around 6,000 households without internet access.

“Franklin County has not fared well in the last two rounds,” said Rice. “There were no bidders [at first].” Verizon, for example, did not bid. Spectrum, which did, ended up being penalized for not reaching its target of 36,771 new households by the end of May 2017.

“That was not their fault,” said Dave Wolff, general manager of the communications division at the Development Authority of the North Country. “The pole owners didn’t help.”

Network providers must pay rental fees for poles that carry their lines, which in some areas adds up to $200 a month per pole.

“What is called ‘make-ready’ accounts for 30 to 40 percent of their cost,” Wolff said.

“The make-ready process is the big gate. The good news is Tupper Lake, or Lake Placid, where the municipality owns the poles, they can help the providers by providing discounts. Saranac Lake is not eligible because it’s in a Spectrum franchise.”

In December, state government revised the target for Spectrum, which is now ahead of its target with 42,000 new customers.

“The state Public Service Commission now has a weekly meeting with the pole owners and the network providers,” Wolff said. He was optimistic that the bottleneck would be resolved soon.

State Sen. Betty Little recently introduced legislation aimed at streamlining the permitting process. Her spokesperson Dan McEntee wrote in an email, “Senator Little’s hope is this legislation will help maximize colocation of utilities, reduce the likelihood of litigation and incent wireless providers to grow their networks in New York State.”

The legislation would provide for state law to override local municipal regulations that add layers of permitting to pole usage, relying on FCC guidelines. In cases where no local law exists, the state laws would fill the gap.

Tech solutions

In addition to state and federal grant money for broadband expansion, the push to cover that final mile may benefit from the use of TV whitespace — unused frequencies between analog UHF and VHF. In 2010, the Federal Communications Commission made this spectrum of frequencies available for unlicensed public use.

Last year’s innovative buildout in Thurman, a town in Warren County, used whitespace to extend internet service to 35 households. Engelmann’s Rainmaker Network Solutions partnered with the town.

“Verizon is not easy to work with, but luckily we were able to tap into Frontier’s fiber network,” he said.

The fiber or cable networks carry the internet signal, which is then amplified at its end point by a router. That wireless signal dies out, depending on how strong it is, within a certain distance from the router. The final mile for internet is that last distance from cable or fiber network to the home computer.

Satellites can send an internet signal beaming down from the sky, but the signal has a long way to travel, and typical download speeds from satellite are maddeningly (or impossibly) slow. They can also be interrupted by clouds.

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

Whitespace, on the other hand, uses TV frequencies, which are broad and strong. TV signals can travel through objects, such as trees, that microwaves (Wi-Fi) cannot. “Trees are transparent to whitespace,” said Engelmann, “Although hills and mountains are not.

“We got lucky,” he said. “We had a pole on a high spot on a main road going south.”

However, the buildout in Thurman hit a major obstacle when one property owner refused to have a pole erected on his property. In order to reach the rest of the coverage area, Engelmann had to go back to the drawing board and plan out a set of poles.

When the bill for this redesign hit the town supervisor’s desk in Thurman, the town initially refused to pay it, arguing that Rainmaker should have foreseen the additional $8,000 in its original bid. The issue was finally resolved last fall, but it came with a lesson.

“The real challenge is to bring down the cost,” said Engelmann.

Here comes the big gun

The solution to the “chicken-egg” problem of cost and capacity may come from a surprising source: Microsoft. According to a white paper put out by the company, “TV white spaces is expected to provide the best approach to reach approximately 80 percent of the underserved rural population, particularly in areas with a population density between two and 200 people per square mile.”

The tech industry giant has launched its “12 by 12” initiative to extend broadband coverage to complete the final mile in 12 states within 12 months. One of those states is New York.

“I agree with what they’re doing,” Engelmann said. “Normally, I’m not a big fan of Microsoft.”

Microsoft’s president and chief legal officer, Brad Smith, issued a statement that Microsoft will support the extension of rural broadband by directly investing with partners, providing training to users and allowing royalty-free access to 39 patents and intellectual property.

The company is currently pioneering a whitespace project in mountainous Nepal, bringing internet access to schools and aiding in disaster response.

“It’s gratifying to see Microsoft get behind it, and say there’s a mix of solutions,” said Engelmann.

In the meantime, the broadband boosters are waiting to see what happens next.

“We’re all waiting on the Phase 3 announcement,” Rice said.

Wolff said he is checking in with state officials on a weekly basis, and they have assured him the delay is because the state wants to cover the last mile this year.

“There are no plans for a Phase 4,” he said.