Bring on the broadband

Back in the 1930s, as the United States was struggling through the Great Depression, rural parts of the country were at an even greater disadvantage. Many areas had little hope of creating jobs, and homes lacked the basic comforts that urban areas offered, because they had no electric service. As part of the New Deal, President Franklin Roosevelt, who had expanded electric service as New York governor, signed the Rural Electrification Act. He said, “Yes, electricity is a modern necessity of life, not a luxury. That necessity ought to be found in every village, in every home and on every farm in every part of the wide United States.”

For Adirondackers, the 21st century equivalent of rural electrification is the push to bring broadband Internet service to homes and businesses throughout the Adirondack Park. You can hear an echo of FDR when Ann Melious, Hamilton County’s community development director, says in the latest Explorer issue’s “Talk of the Towns,” “Broadband is a baseline service. Sewer, water, power, broadband. For us, it levels the playing field.”

Too many areas in the Adirondacks have not had the kind of high-speed Internet service that modern life now demands. As time has gone on, a service that may have seemed a luxury has become a basic necessity. Thankfully, through extensive work by local leaders and funding from state government, broadband service is beginning to flow into smaller communities and more rural reaches of the Park. And none too soon. While the service by itself is probably not a magic wand that bestows prosperity on all it touches, its lack is a great obstacle to improving the quality of life in the Adirondacks.

One of the most important potential benefits of expanded broadband service is the chance to attract more telecommuters to the Adirondacks. More and more jobs can now be done, in large part, electronically. With the occasional visit to customers or the home office, individuals can work in the Adirondacks, enjoying a small-town lifestyle in the midst of natural beauty. We have quality of life that draws millions of visitors and that can also draw new families to live here once broadband service makes telecommuting possible.

But this isn’t the only reason to keep up the push for broadband. Internet service is now woven into the fabric of modern life:

Small rural schools can offer electronic distance learning and improve their chance of surviving in the communities where they are the center of life.

Employers increasingly post job openings online and may only take electronic applications.

Information about everything from college admissions to apartment rentals to health-care options is found online.

Institutions like hospitals, colleges or public agencies can more effectively serve the region when they can reach more customers through high-speed delivery systems for digital information.

Public-safety agencies can quickly alert residents to threats from natural disasters and electronically provide information critical to coping in emergencies.

After years of slow progress, the expansion of broadband in the Park is accelerating.

The latest good news came in a March announcement of a new round of state funding for expanding service in the Park as part of a larger state program known as the Connect New York Broadband Grant Program. A look at some of the projects receiving aid shows how challenging this modern incarnation of rural electrification is. It takes serious money to bring service to a relatively small number of customers. These grants are for work that builds on existing networks and will be combined with further private investment so actual costs are even higher. The investment is on a far different scale than in compact urban areas, where businesses can add thousands of customers within a few city blocks.

-$200,000 will bring service to 89 households in Thurman in Warren County.

-More than $976,000 will bring service to 527 households in Lyon Mountain, Clinton County.

-$557,000 will make service available to 1,900 households in the Essex County towns of Jay and Wilmington.

-More than $2.1 million will go to bring service to 457 households in the towns of Schroon and North Hudson in Essex County as well as provide wireless service in public places like the Schroon Beach.

With such high costs and broad public benefits, the role of government is as indispensable as in the time of the New Deal. It’s just not realistic to expect that private enterprise, left to its own devices, would reach into these unserved rural areas any time soon.

Local entrepreneurs and community leaders helped get the broadband initiative rolling in the Adirondacks. Now that this service has become a priority for Albany and the Regional Economic Development Councils that compete for state aid, it’s developing real momentum. There’s good reason for the excitement that’s building around expanded service and even more reason to push for continued funding. Broad coverage throughout the Adirondacks will give the region a fighting chance to reverse trends of underemployment, population decline and endangered communities.

Tom Woodman is publisher of the Adirondack Explorer, based in Saranac Lake. This essay appears as an editorial in the May/June issue of that magazine.