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As broadband investment grows, some in North Country feel left behind

Miles, Gary, and Wini Martin outside the Martin’s home and lumber mill in Thurman, NY. (Provided photo — Emily Russell/North Country Public Radio)

More than 14 million Americans don’t have high-speed internet, according to the FCC. The Biden Administration wants to change that by investing billions of dollars into broadband expansion.

But there’s a problem: it’s not clear where internet dead zones are, which means even more Americans could be struggling to get online, including many in the North Country.

Wini Martin lives in the town of Thurman in the southern Adirondacks. It’s as rural as it gets — there’s no gas station or grocery store in town. Martin is standing by the side of the road with her grandson.

“Miles, just pay attention,” Martin says. “Just don’t get hurt.” Her grandson, Miles, is holding up his phone trying to get cell service. Right now this is the only way they can get online.

“He just found out that you can get it in the middle of the road, which we couldn’t before,” says Martin.

The Martins have had internet over the years, but service providers come and go. They’ve been offline for months now and that’s been tough on the lumber business Wini runs with her husband. It’s also hard on the grandkids, who spend part of the week here.

“They have to either just not bother doing schoolwork while they’re here, or else they go to their father’s place of employment to use the internet,” says Martin. “It’s awful.”

Mapping internet service gaps

Not having the internet means no online banking, no remote work, no Facebook or email, and in the coronavirus pandemic, no telehealth visits.

“It wasn’t life or death ten or fifteen years ago,” says Jim Siplon. “Today it’s life or death. It’s as important as electricity and water.”

Siplon is President of the Economic Development Corporation for Warren County. The EDC launched a broadband survey this year, trying to figure out who does and doesn’t have broadband. For people who are connected, they also asked, how good is your service?

“What are the speeds that people are experiencing, what are they paying, can they afford it? All of those things are fundamental parts of the equation,” says Siplon.

Those data points are also fundamental to allocating a lot of new federal funds. The most recent COVID relief package included 7 billion dollars to bring more schools and libraries online. The Biden administration wants to pump another hundred billion into broadband as part of the infrastructure bill.

County, state maps fill in federal gaps

The FCC says its service maps are outdated. It just launched a new mapping effort, but that update will take years. So a lot of counties and states like Georgia, North Carolina, and Maine are making their own maps.

“It’s great to hear that so many local communities and counties are doing their own mapping initiatives because our federal map is a giant disaster,” says Dr. Chirstopher Ali.

Ali is a professor at the University of Virginia whose work focuses on rural broadband. He other experts say data collected by the FCC is often misleading and just plain wrong. If one home on a block has broadband, the FCC considers that entire block covered. Plus, internet providers only have to report the speeds they advertise, not their actual speeds.

Ali says this has led to a lot of money wasted. “We were still using the bad maps when the FCC decided the first phase of winners in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, which is a $20.4 billion subsidy for broadband deployment.”

Part of that fund was doled out last December by the Trump administration. The goal is to bring more rural homes and small businesses online, to spark economic development. “We saw a lot of, let’s say, questionable allocations such as paying companies to wire a parking lot,” says Ali.

Bridging the homework gap in Akwesasne

While that solution may not make sense in Miami, the example Ali is referencing, it has helped in more rural places like Akwesasne. The tribe’s internet service provider, Mohawk Networks, set up wi-fi hotspots in a parking lot, a cafe, and a casino for people outside their service area.

“So many tribes are struggling with access and most especially bridge that homework gap,” said Allyson Mitchell.

Mitchell is the general manager of Mohawk Networks. She says she knows a college student who had been writing a paper on her cell phone until she learned about the local hotspots.

“These are the moments when we’re glad that we have a community that can respond to these needs, but it’s also indicative that we need to do more,” Mitchell said.

Wini Martin, from Thurman in Warren County, says families and businesses in rural towns deserve reliable and affordable internet.

“Yes we choose to live here, we love it here, we feel that we’re privileged by living in the Adirondacks,” says Martin.

“But it’s like civilization has gotten up and moved past us,” says Martin.

Martin is scheduled to get back online soon with a new internet provider. It’s unclear, though, when the millions or potentially tens of millions of Americans will get connected.

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