Adirondacks need internet upgrade

As anyone who spends even just a few hours here knows all too well, getting reliable and comprehensive cellular coverage and internet service inside the Blue Line is a challenge.

The Adirondack Park, well known as America’s largest state park, encompasses 6 million acres that include dense forests and remote mountaintops as well as 120 hamlets and communities that are home to some 130,000 year-round residents.

The diverse geography that makes the park unique also makes it uniquely difficult to bring up to par with most of the rest of the state when it comes to connectivity. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has recognized the need to improve cellular and internet service, both in the North Country and statewide, proposing a streamlined permitting process for municipal infrastructure in his executive budget to pave the way for the next generation of wireless technology: 5G.

New Yorkers are increasingly relying on their wireless devices for everything from the mundane — checking weather reports and sports scores — to the potentially life-altering — placing a 911 call. A recent statewide poll found 82% of respondents own a smartphone and 81% said they feel that network connectivity is an absolute necessity for modern life.

When fully implemented, 5G will transport data faster than we can currently even imagine, impacting and transforming everything from education and health care to law enforcement and transportation. But these innovations cannot occur if the small cell network necessary to make them happen can’t be built due to prohibitive permit costs and long wait times.

I know many of my fellow local government officials oppose the governor’s proposal — including the New York Conference of Mayors, of which I served as president from 1997 to 1998.

I have been a mayor for close to two decades now, first in the city of Plattsburgh and now in the village of Saranac Lake. I well understand the concern about losing control of what occurs within one’s own borders. But we must admit that the current permitting system is hopelessly mired in red tape and creates a difficult-to-navigate thicket of regulations that vary widely from one municipality to the next.

This is not the time for parochial thinking, not when New York faces so many challenges and technological opportunities.

Take, for example, the looming shortage of medical professionals. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, the U.S. faces a predicted deficit of up to 121,200 doctors by 2032. This problem will hit low-income urban areas and rural regions like ours the hardest.

Parts of the North Country are already struggling to retain and recruit doctors, nurses and home health aides — a problem that will become more acute as our population ages.

Technological advances like telemedicine, which enables health care professionals to confer remotely with patients, can help address this problem and assure that people who need access to critical medical care can get it. Remote consultants as assessments can also help drive costs down by, among other things, preventing patients from having to travel long distances.

Telemedicine can also play a role in New York’s fight against COVID-19, enabling patients who might have the virus to speak remotely to health care professionals and avoid making unnecessary trips to clinics, hospitals and doctors’ offices where they might infect others. Keeping people who are not suffering severe symptoms at home also ensures there is adequate space in brick-and-mortar facilities to treat those who are seriously ill.

Expanding and densifying wireless coverage will also provide more reliable access to emergency services. Today, 80% of all 911 calls are placed from a wireless device, making it more important than ever before that we ensure these calls can go through. Too often we have seen tragedies occur in the Adirondack Park due to a lack of cellular service.

The need for reliable and widespread service becomes even more acute in the summer months, when the population of the Adirondack Park doubles as the tourists on which our economy so heavily depends arrive. These visitors, the majority of whom have handheld wireless devices, stress our already stretched emergency services system. They also require information — lots of it — about everything from hotels and restaurants to trail maps and driving directions.

The village of Saranac Lake has already been approached by one wireless carrier expressing interest in bringing 5G to our community. We know that this is coming, and though we don’t know when, we should be prepared. A draft code amendment has been circulated, and we are looking at what is and isn’t possible under new Federal Communications Commission regulations.

The governor’s proposal, which establishes a set time period and certain financial parameters for small cell permitting on municipal infrastructure, seeks to codify the FCC’s changes. State lawmakers should support his effort to keep New York competitive and on the cutting edge in the race to bring next-generation wireless service to all corners of the state.

Clyde Rabideau is mayor of the village of Saranac Lake.