Tupper-to-Long Lake broadband delayed

TUPPER LAKE – The installation of high-speed Internet fiber-optic cable from Tupper Lake to Long Lake has been delayed, and some residents are concerned they’ll be left out.

In 2010, Slic Network Solutions received $33 million in federal stimulus money to bring high-speed Internet to the North Country. Last spring the Empire State Development board also approved a $596,000 grant to help Slic Network Solutions extend 27 miles of new Internet service cable and related equipment between Tupper Lake and Long Lake. The grant will cover most of the $697,758 Slic applied for through the Consolidated Funding Application process.

Slic currently provides high-speed Internet, voice and data services to more than 3,000 homes in the region.

The company is usually a “last-mile” provider, meaning it doesn’t lay the main town-to-town lines but rather connects those to individual households, businesses and other users. However, it will provide the “middle-mile” cable for this project. The middle mile connects two points, like Tupper Lake and Long Lake.

The middle-mile project was originally slated to be completed by this winter, with last-mile hookups slated to be finished by June.

Construction has yet to begin, but Mark Dzwonczyk, CEO of Nicholville Telephone Company which is Slic’s parent company, said much behind-the-scenes engineering design work has taken place. What’s holding the project up is finalizing agreements between the various entities involved.

“There’s no specific delays; it’s just sometimes these things take longer than we would imagine,” Dzwonczyk said. “There’s something called ‘make ready’ that you have to do for the poles. We have to have an agreement with Frontier to get on their telephone poles, so we say we want to be on their poles, they have to give us the right to do that, and then they have to make their poles ready.”

After an agreement is reached, Slic will pay Frontier to make the poles ready, and then Slic can install the broadband cable.

Another issue holding up the process is a conduit near the Moody Flow area in Tupper Lake, which Slic is working with Verizon and the Development Authority of the North Country to get access to.

Dzwonczyk stressed that there are no specific problems with Frontier or Verizon, and said his company is talking about how it can exchange services to work in cooperation with them.

Despite the delayed construction start date, Dzwonczyk said Slic is still on target to have service from Tupper Lake to Long Lake by June. Once complete, the broadband cable will be connected to 514 homes and 56 businesses.

“You can really do this pretty quickly once you get the actual agreements,” Dzwonczyk said. “There’s not that much time for the actual construction as long as you have the free and clear right of way to do it. The make-ready takes 60 to 90 days, and we expect to begin construction right after that. Construction is expected to take 60 days.”

No spur roads for now

The new broadband backbone does not necessarily mean everyone in the two villages will have access to high-speed Internet, though.

Several hot spots have been designated, including the beach in Tupper Lake and the area near Lake Eaton in Long Lake. Beyond that, access to service will depend on proximity to the main line.

“Construction is going to be provisioned so we can turn on service to people who are along the way, which means a stone throw from our fiber backbone, which means no significant construction,” said Phil Wagschal. “We’re not going to go up spur roads. That doesn’t mean we won’t in the future, but right now we’re just provisioning fiber all along the route for people we pass.”

By “stone throw,” Wagschal meant homes or businesses within about 1,500 feet of the main line.

“There’s a difference between running a drop to the house and actually doing additional construction down the road,” Wagschal said. “That’s a pretty pronounced distinction. A lot of the costs we incur are associated with make-ready, which is the cost to get on the poles. That’s an expensive part of what we do, so running a drop down a driveway to a house isn’t bad.”

Dzwonczyk explained that the grant money covers 80 percent of the project’s costs. It’s a reimbursement, so Slic must pay for the work up front. He said since the original time frame to complete the job was an estimate, the money will still be available.

Dzwonczyk said he’d like to see coverage expanded in the future, but for now budget constraints dictate that the company must stick with the plan.

“There’s always someone at the end of the road, or off some spur where we stop, who asks why we don’t just go four more houses down or an extra half-mile,” Dzwonczyk said. “You can actually do that all the way across the country because there’s always someone who’s just a couple of houses away from the original planned build. We have to do this within a budget. Another half-mile turns into 10 miles by the time you keep extending it by a half-mile every time. We’re trying to do that so we can get more customers, but that’s separate from the state grant.”

Eager for broadband

One of those concerned homeowners is Fred Sherman.

Sherman’s in-laws have owned a camp in Tupper Lake for 40 years. About 15 years ago, he bought a house near the Tupper Lake Golf Club at the base of Mount Morris.

Sherman said it’s frustrating to have to leave his house to gain access to broadband. Time Warner Cable’s last drop was about a half-mile from his house, and he’d love to be included in the new Slic network.

“I understand the economics of having to run cable for one person,” Sherman said. “I get it, but the Verizon 3G service just isn’t enough. If you want to surf and get Internet, it’s fine, but much more than that on 3Gs is hard.”

Sherman said his main concern is that lack of high-speed Internet is chasing visitors away and hurting the economy.

“I have a friend from Westchester (County) who owns a grocery store,” Sherman said. “He says in order to spend more time up here, he needs to be able to communicate with his suppliers and his workers. He can only come up for the weekend, but if I had Internet, he could spend a few more days. And when he spends a few more days, guess what? He goes into Shaheen’s (in Tupper Lake), and he buys stuff at their supermarket. He goes to the local restaurants. When there’s people, they spend money; it’s just the way it works.”

Back at Slic, Dzwonczyk said several communities in the area are taking a proactive approach and appealing to his company for broadband access. Some are even offering to foot the bill to have the last-mile service installed.

“We’re talking to a couple of groups of neighbors who are asking what they can do to get high-speed Internet in their area all over the North Country,” Dzwonczyk said. “We are separately working with a number of other groups in Tupper. Separately, the company is willing to make investments to expand our service.”