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Missed broadband connections could mean missed opportunities for North Country

One effect of the coronavirus pandemic has been more people moving from cities to more affordable, greener areas where they can work remotely.

That description fits many parts of rural Upstate New York to a “T,” and presents an opportunity for the region as it continues to fight population declines.

However, high-speed internet access is still not a given in parts of the region, which can be a deal-breaker for newcomers like Marlena Newcomb.

She takes online university classes and her fiance is a computer programmer, who can work remotely. So, when they were looking for a house this past year, to relocate from the more expensive Pacific Northwest, Newcomb says, “Whenever we saw a property that we liked on a website like Zillow or Redfin, we would just reach out to the listing agent” to ask, “Can you tell us for sure that it has high-speed internet?”

With flexibility in choosing their new hometown, the couple looked in parts of Vermont, all the way out to the eastern coast of Maine. In the Adirondacks, she says, some Realtors didn’t blink at the internet question. Others found it strange.

“There is definitely that idea of, like, seasonal use doesn’t require high-speed internet, but that was never going to be an option for us,” Newcomb recalls. The need for a high-speed connection ruled out some places they otherwise liked, like around the hamlet of Old Forge. They finally opted for a house in St. Regis Falls.

The supervisor for the town they passed up — Old Forge is part of the town of Webb, the largest jurisdiction in New York state, covering 460 square miles in the Adirondacks — David Berkstresser, says he would like to see more full-time residents.

Normally, Webb’s population goes from around 2,000 people in the winter to closer to a small city in the summer. Right now, he says, it’s somewhere in between, as a lot of people spend extended periods in second homes. Already, he says, this has revealed cracks in the town’s internet infrastructure.

“Because their kids are going to school remotely,” he says, “and we’re a small area, our internet is strained.”

Then, a lot of houses there still lack a connection to broadband service, which he notes is a must for anyone considering living there year-round.

“It’s not a luxury. It’s a utility, same as telephone, same as cable, same as electric,” Berkstresser says, “that people expect.”

Berkstresser spent a lot of last year looking for subsidies and lobbying companies to extend broadband cables.

“Most of it’s out of my hands,” he says, “All I can do is fight to get someone up here to install it. Which is a fight.”

State Sen. Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, adds that the region is in a limited window of opportunity during the pandemic, as more people are considering relocating or spending time in second homes or long-term rentals, “to find ways to encourage more people to live here.”

“Now, you’ve got Manhattan paychecks floating around in the North Country,” he says, “You’ve got disposable income from somebody that’s making whatever the market rate is in New York City, but they’re going to our shops. They’re going to our restaurants. They’re using our services. They’re employing our people.”

But a lack of broadband access in properties they might consider buying, he says, could scuttle that potential economic driver. Telecommuting, after all, only works if you can reach the office.

Stec has been advocating for the state to build out broadband infrastructure. The Cuomo administration says broadband has reached 98% of the state, but Stec says the North Country is disproportionately underserved.

The governor recently declined to sign a bill passed by the state legislature that would have launched a comprehensive study to identify which households statewide still lack high-speed connectivity. Stec criticized the decision this week, saying too many families and businesses have been left on the wrong side of the digital divide.

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