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Tupper Lake gets fiber-optic grant

U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, left, and state Assemblyman Dan Stec, with Assemblyman Billy Jones video-calling in on a laptop between them, speak at the Tupper Lake Emergency Services Building Wednesday, discussing a $200,000 grant the town got to improve its broadband internet capability. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

TUPPER LAKE — This town and the Development Authority of the North Country have been awarded a federal grant to expand fiber-optic broadband service to under- or unserved businesses and residents in the uptown area of Tupper Lake, which is expected to be a foundation for future broadband expansion and improvement.

As students, medical professionals and the general public rely on stable internet connection more and more during the global COVID-19 pandemic, this grant will allow the town to offer faster, cheaper and more widely available high-speed internet to all corners of the town, with completion expected next year.

The intent of this project is for the town to eventually become an internet provider, supplying the service to paying customers, similar to other public utilities such as the village electric department.

A collection of local, state and federal politicians were in town Wednesday to discuss the $200,000 grant from the Northern Border Regional Commission’s rural broadband fund.

Elected officials said the 5.5 miles of fiber-optic cable this grant funds would tap into existing fiber line to connect around 40 businesses in the town’s business district, over 100 residents in the community — some of whom are currently unserved by broadband — and three public hotspots to high-speed internet.

The completion of this project is planned to be before the summer of 2021.

Tupper Lake Broadband Committee Chairman John Quinn also said the project will focus on a wireless last-mile solution, with a goal of near 100% coverage. He said wireless antennas could be used to beam broadband around town. There are also plans for free wireless hotspots in the waterfront park, Park Street uptown and Main Street Junction downtown business districts.

The town and DANC were co-applicants on this grant, but DANC will likely receive the money to contract a company to do the installation.

DANC telecommunications division Manager David Wolf said they hope to have a contract by November, make plans over the winter, begin construction in the spring and be done by the start of summer 2021.

Essential service

The elected officials spoke at length about how the need for adequate broadband service has been drastically elevated during the coronavirus pandemic.

“The importance of broadband in our communities cannot be overstated,” Stec said. “It is today what years ago electricity was. … And certainly, that means that there’s a role for government to play in bringing this infrastructure everywhere it needs to be.”

State Assemblyman Billy Jones said broadband was the topic of around 30-50% of the emails and calls his office received before the pandemic.

He described this issue as the one which would determine their “legacy” as leaders, what they leave behind for the next generation.

“This is a utility,” Jones said. “Laying broadband cable is just as important as putting up the power poles that we did back in the middle of the (20th) century.”

Stec said broadband is needed for regular internet, but also for its use in education, telemedicine, property value and public safety, each of which has become important during the pandemic, in which many are working, learning and living at home.

This isn’t about watching movies, North Country Chamber of Commerce President Garry Douglas said.

“This pandemic proved that it … is a human essential,” Douglas said. “We cannot have a region like the Adirondacks left out of a human essential.”

Stec said it is an “injustice” that local students are at a “competitive disadvantage” to students in areas with broadband.

Speeds, rates and cost

“Affordability is an important part of the equation,” DANC Communications Director Laurie Marr said.

Wolf said DANC was asked by St. Lawrence County schools to survey broadband needs among families.

“About 85% of people they identified as not having internet had it available; they just couldn’t pay for it,” Wolf said.

Quinn said he hopes the town service can give providers like Spectrum some competition.

Quality is important, too, Stefanik said, adding that “satellite is not good enough.”

The service would likely start at speeds of one gigabit per second — uploading and downloading — for initial commercial users. Quinn said this is around five times faster than they have currently, and it can be upgraded to be up to 100 times faster.

Broadband service provided to unserved homes through wireless technology will have around 25 Mbps downloading and 3 Mbps uploading speeds.

Rates for businesses would be set at $80 per month, with that revenue being split by the town and DANC. Rates for residents would be $40 per month, all for the town.

DANC will include a cash match of $30,000 to $35,000 to obtain the grant and the town will provide in-kind contributions of $20,000 in the form of office space, antenna space and potentially lower pole attachment fees from the village.

Thanks all around

Elected leaders thanked each other and the organizations they worked with consistently throughout the roundtable, remarking at how quickly the grant was approved and how competitive the field was for it.

Stefanik said she helped lay the groundwork for this sort of grant to occur. When she took office in 2015 she said she helped increase federal funding for NBRC grants. She also said she fought to expand the “northern border region” from just encapsulating the counties touching the boarders to including every county in her district.

She also said there was an issue with the Federal Communications Commission at the beginning of 2020 which she resolved by speaking with the FCC chairman.

“I spoke directly with (Chairman) Ajit Pai and asked him to overturn the FCC’s decision to exclude New York from Phase I of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund,” Stefanik wrote in an email. “This will allocate $16 billion in important funding to expand rural broadband access.”

Tupper Lake town Supervisor Patti Littlefield said the grant went through its approval process very fast, calling the process “painless.”

“People don’t realize how hard it is to get a grant today,” village Mayor Paul Maroun said. He said the grant field is very competitive and thanked Stefanik for her hard work.

Wolf said this was a “highly competitive grant.” There were 43 applications four states, and Tupper Lake was one of only eight which were awarded.

Wolf thanked the town’s broadband committee, saying its work helped a lot.

“The study that they did really opened our eyes to the number of people who do not have good availability for internet service,” Littlefield said.

The survey was mailed out to 120 businesses in November 2019, and received 30 mail responses and over 100 responses online.

Ownership, management

Quinn said a lack of companies interested in providing fiber services to the town led the town to decide to do it itself. He said this service would be run like any other essential utility.

The town of Tupper Lake will own the core router needed to deliver internet services, the server required for managing the network, and the network interface device located at the residential customer premises. The town will be responsible for maintenance of the residential wireless equipment, the network management-billing server, internet service billing and collections, and call center operations. It is anticipated the town will contract with a provider for these services.

DANC will own the fiber cable, the core ethernet switch required to serve the businesses, the wireless antennas and the network interface located at business customers’ premises. DANC will also be responsible for the ongoing maintenance of the fiber cable and core electronic equipment acquired with this grant. DANC currently maintains more than 1,200 miles of fiber cable and 30 central office locations.

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