In rural NY, students and workers need high-speed internet amid COVID. But these barriers remain
Shaun Prentice would never have purchased his business if he knew it would be this hard to hook it up to high-speed internet.
Prentice bought St. Lawrence Recreation, a boat retail and repair facility near Massena, close the Canadian border, two decades ago.
The St. Lawrence River runs through the backyard, and New York State Route 37 is out front. The closest broadband internet connection travels through fiber optic cables hanging on poles along the road, but Prentice can’t access it.
So he spent about $1,200 on an antenna to amplify a wireless signal to and from the nearest cell tower. He pays $300 a month to keep that going.
Still, the business’ credit card machine doesn’t always work for customers, and the office computers are slow when he needs to order inventory. Sometimes he gives up and finishes the work from home.
“You need this to conduct business today,” he said. “Otherwise you’re not going to be competitive.”
The New York Broadband Program Office declared victory over the digital divide last year, saying that 99.9% of the state was covered with high-speed broadband of 25 megabits per second or faster. The state’s Broadband For All program distributed $500 million to internet service providers to get New York’s most rural areas online.
But those left in the .1%, mainly in rural areas, are out of luck. And many of those served by the broadband program use satellite internet, which can’t handle Netflix or a virtual meeting platform like Zoom.
With COVID-19 and school and work shifting further into the virtual realm, a strong internet connection is more important than ever.
So what’s happening to families, businesses and schools who don’t have one and why does it still remain such a vexing problem?
The homework gap with limited internet
In the peak of the pandemic, as classrooms sat empty and Zoom meetings became a household activity, staff at Franklin-Essex-Hamilton BOCES were driving through the Adirondack Park, hand delivering packets full of paper homework assignments to students who couldn’t access the internet from their homes.
It was the only way some students could keep up with their classes in an area that is “probably one of the biggest black holes in terms of broadband availability” in the state, said Dale Breault, superintendent for the BOCES, which covers 10 school districts in northern New York and the Adirondacks.
All of the districts’ buildings have robust internet connectivity through an Albany-based information center.
But their bids to conduct more schoolwork online using Chromebooks or similar devices, especially in the COVID-19 era, have fallen flat if the students don’t have the same connectivity at home.
It creates a difficult situation as districts consider whether students should return to in-person learning next month or continue the online learning that started in March when the virus shuttered schools.
“This whole remote learning situation exacerbated what we already knew to be the homework gap,” Breault said.
At the end of the school year, Zoom calls were nearly impossible for Shannon Bentley, 17, of Wilmington, who graduated from Lake Placid High School in June and lives in a home set back into the woods of the Adirondacks.
Both her audio and video would be spotty, and she struggled to participate in class.
Her mother, who runs a mobile veterinarian business, worked from home during the peak of the pandemic shut down, and her brother was home from college.
That was sometimes too much usage for their internet connection to handle, so Bentley would head to her dad’s house nearby where the connection was stronger.
If she had to turn in a large assignment at home, she’d make sure she had time before her deadline to upload it to the internet.. Sometimes she’d get a notification that an assignment file had uploaded, but then later realize it never reached its destination.
“I tried my best to keep up during the end of the year, but it was definitely harder to keep track of assignments that I thought I turned in,” Bentley said.
“The last two weeks I felt all jumbled. I didn’t know where all my stuff was.”
Students struggle with limited internet in Adirondacks
In the Madrid-Waddington Central School District, south of Massena, several students who do not have a broadband connection directly to their homes struggled when the pandemic hit in the spring.
They ended up using the Neighbor to Neighbor program, which uses small antennas to bounce a wireless signal from a nearby house, essentially “sharing” its broadband connection, said Michelle Burke, the district’s technology coordinator.
“The schools along the blue line, right into the Adirondack Park, are having a lot of difficulty because the (fiber) lines just are not run there, and the cell service is spotty at best,” Burke said.
According to recent surveys of the districts covered by the Franklin-Essex-Hamilton BOCES network, 20% to 50% of families do not have an adequate internet connection to participate in today’s digital landscape from home.
The reasons are multi-faceted.
The Adirondack Park, a state-regulated park area, maintains strict rules around infrastructure and construction. It would be financially prohibitive for providers to reach certain locations, so families must work with satellite internet, which is often much slower than other connection options.
Rural poverty is also a factor.
"Hidden poverty" in wealthier communities like Lake Placid or Saranac Lake also creates barriers to families accessing a strong internet connection, even if it’s available, officials said.
Why internet problems still persist in New York
New York lawmakers have been speaking out on the problem throughout the pandemic, urging the federal government to intervene.
“Teachers were teaching from cars, students were typing papers on their phones and parents are trying to attend (virtual) meetings while kids are using the internet,” Sen. Kirsten Gillbrand said in June.
“New Yorkers have for months been trying to do the impossible and get by during COVID-19...families cannot wait any longer.”
Gillibrand has pushed for $100 million in broadband funding included in the CARES Act to be invested in communities that need it as soon as possible.
Internet service providers, fueled by grants through the state’s Broadband for All program, have made headway with high-speed internet installation in the state’s most rural areas, including the Adirondack Park and the North Country.
Some districts have gotten creative with installing WiFi when state efforts fall short.
But it has been a patchwork effort, rather than a full-scale push to reach every family with broadband internet, which is now more of a utility than a luxury, Breault said.
“Our kids and our families are being left behind in the modern digital economy,” he said.
Taxing the internet expansion
Broadband connection often comes to remote towns in the form of small cable and phone companies that transitioned to providing fiber internet in rural areas.
Relying on state or federal grants, the companies map out the shortest routes to reach the most people with a broadband connection, always keeping in mind the massive up-front costs of building out a fiber network.
The costs include permitting, construction, materials and, more recently, right-of-way taxes paid to the state Department of Transportation.
Companies that receive state grants for broadband expansions also incur thousands of dollars in state fees, just to connect a handful of homes down a rural stretch of road.
“Basically we’re taking these dollars and handing them back to the DOT,” said Kevin Lynch, chief operating officer at SLIC Network Solutions, a broadband and television service provider working in the Adirondacks and the North Country.
As part of last year's state budget, the DOT was allowed to charge fiber optic providers fees to place cables in the state right-of-way, which would include cables traveling on poles alongside a state highway, for example.
For SLIC and other area providers, the charges amount to about $2,000 a mile, which makes it financially prohibitive for the company to reach certain areas, even if they have the financial capacity to do so otherwise, they said.
Lynch originally told Shaun Prentice, at St. Lawrence Recreation, that he could help get him a better connection. With the new fees, it’s essentially impossible, he said.
“This is prohibiting the growth of broadband,” Lynch said. “We need incentives, not disincentives, to build this out.”
The Department of Transportation supports the state’s efforts to expand broadband access, the department said in a statement.
"The legislatively approved right-of-way program delivers valuable resources, all of which are used to maintain the public right-of-ways these companies are using and safety for the traveling public," the agency said.
"We are having ongoing conversations with the broadband industry to support the expansion of broadband across New York as we implement this program.”
Internet tax leads to lawsuit, and frustrations continue
The issue continues, however, after a lawsuit was recently filed to stop the fees, and as Republicans rail against an expansion this year that allows the state to charge annual fees per foot of broadband.
Lawmakers are urging the state to waive the fees, particularly amid the COVID pandemic.
"We should be encouraging the expansion of affordable and reliable broadband everywhere in our state," said Sen. Pam Helming, R-Canandaigua, Ontario County.
"Now is not the time to hit the pause button on expansion and risk the loss of even more job opportunities."
Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther, D-Sullivan County, said her office fields complaints daily from constituents about inadequate broadband service.
"It's an absolute horror show," she said.
She views the internet service gaps as discriminatory, creating classes of haves and have-nots — particularly for students this fall.
In the Catskills, the only internet option for Sara and Brett Budde in Fallsburg is their satellite service, which costs $160 a month, has limited data and sometimes goes on and off.
Their business, Majestic Farm, has a website to sell organic apples and meats, but updating it can be difficult because of the data limit. And they can't stream videos.
"This pandemic has really magnified tremendously the disadvantages of not having access to broadband," said Sen. Jen Metzger, D-Rosendale, Ulster County.
Troubles persist in Adirondacks for broadband service
In Keene, in the heart of the Adirondacks, local author Lorraine Duvall stood next to a telephone pole to make her point.
It was the last pole carrying SLIC fiber internet up the hill toward her house, but her front door was still about two miles away.
A local television company, eventually bought by SLIC, connected about 95% of the town with fiber internet years ago, Duvall estimated.
But, she said, “We are in the 5% that didn’t get it.."
With a background in computer engineering, Duvall knows her way around internet technology, and she called various companies to see what they could offer her.
The home she shares with her husband Bruce is in an open but secluded area, leaving her just one internet option for now: satellite, which typically offers 25 megabits per second of internet speed compared to between 100 and 500 for a fiber connection.
The state’s Broadband for All program used Federal Communications Commission maps of census blocks to determine which regions still needed high-speed internet.
Duvall believes her census block was passed because it was shown to already be serviced with an internet connection.
But the satillite service is spotty.
In thunderstorms, it breaks down. YouTube works for about five minutes, then the buffering wheel takes over.
At the height of the pandemic, Zoom wouldn’t work at the house, and Duvall found herself in the town library parking lot using the building’s WiFi.
Meanwhile, she’s paying $50 monthly for satellite service, and when the couple drains their allotted amount of data for the month, they must pay extra to keep their internet from slowing to a crawl.
She chose to move to a rural setting where technology wouldn’t be as easy to come by. But just as electricity became ubiquitous in every home in the 1950s, internet is something that should become available to everyone eventually, she said.
"It would be great if we considered it as a utility — all over, you need to have internet," she said.
Includes reporting by Times Herald-Record staff writer Chris McKenna.
Sarah Taddeo is the consumer watchdog reporter for USA Today Network's New York State Team. She investigates stories about your consumer rights, including scams, negligent landlords, safety issues and wayward businesses.
Got a story tip or comment? Contact Sarah at STADDEO@Gannett.com or (585) 258-2774. Follow her on Twitter @Sjtaddeo.
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