Broadband Delays Prompt Frustration in Rural New York

Despite a push to connect high-speed Internet to rural homes throughout the state, connectivity could be delayed until at least 2020 for residents in Niagara County.

by Tim Fenster, Lockport Union-Sun & Journal / April 2, 2018
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(TNS) — The New York broadband program office last month celebrated a major milestone — it had received commitments to bring high-speed internet to every home and business in the state.

But many residents who lack high-speed internet in rural Niagara County weren't celebrating.

Many are frustrated with the pace of the broadband expansions, knowing that the build-out from Charter Communications may not reach them until 2020.

Others are skeptical of the build-out, after the company allegedly fell well short of its last two progress targets, in May and December 2017.

And others feel left out entirely, seeing a broadband program that ignored their requests for the dependable, unlimited high-speed internet that fiber optic cable can bring.

This last group — considered by the state to be the most remote, hard-to-reach residents and businesses — were instead offered high-speed satellite internet at a reduced cost.

The broadband program office made satellite internet a significant component of its broadband push, awarding nearly $15.5 million in state funds — along with $13.6 million in federal and private funds — to Hughes Network Services, LLC.

With that funding, Hughes will offer reduced-cost satellite internet to 75,628 locations across the state, including 1,169 in Niagara County and 154 in Orleans County.

Empire State Development officials say Hughes will be required to offer internet with download speeds of 25 megabytes per second — the state threshold for the most rural areas. (Elsewhere, the threshold is 100 mbps.) Hughes will also have to charge those grant-funded users no more than $60 per month for the next five years, and no more than $49 for installation.

But critics say reduced-cost satellite internet hardly counts as broadband, noting the service comes with data caps and signal lags that prevent some activities.

“This technology was readily available to all of us before the program," said Matt Stern, a Royalton resident who has struggled for years to get internet coverage at his rural home. "It was unused, unwanted and doesn't work. And now they're offering us this.”

One of Stern's biggest gripes with Hughes' services is the data caps. On its website, Hughes lists plans with monthly data caps of 10 to 50 gigabytes. After the cap is exceeded, speeds are reduced to just 1 to 3 mbps.

Though the broadband program office bars "hard" data caps, it permits these soft data caps. A spokesperson for Empire State Development confirmed that Hughes can impose caps and slow-downs on those customers.

Hughes has not yet released details of its state-funded plans, which are expected to be unveiled in the coming months.

A Hughes spokesperson said the company is continuing to gather information from the state.

In a statement responding to several questions, Hughes praised the state for its awards.

“We are delighted that HughesNet has been selected to participate in the New York State Broadband Initiative and that there is a clear endorsement that satellite broadband is an essential technology that brings genuine high-speed Internet access economically to all homes across America," said Executive Vice President Mike Cook in the statement.

State officials say it's not economically feasible to run cable to far-out, rural locations.

An Empire State Development spokesperson cited a Federal Communications Commission position paper that found it would cost $40 billion to bring connectivity from 98 to 100 percent — the same amount it would cost to expand connection from 86 to 98 percent.

But Stern said the data caps and other issues make satellite internet woefully inadequate to meet his family's needs. Indeed, one hour of streaming high-definition video uses about three GB. Lower quality video uses one GB over an hour, and music streaming eats up 115.2 megabytes per hour (or one GB for eight hours).

"It's completely untenable," Stern said. "Hughes Net is not the answer.”

The company offsets these caps by offering in some plans "bonus bytes" that can be utilized during the hours of 2 a.m. to 8 a.m. — periods of low usage. Hughes recommends scheduling large downloads for this time.

But the Hughes website offers no suggestions for compensating with other issues, such as the signal latency that's caused by the time it takes the signal to travel to the satellite and back to Earth. That latency prevents satellite internet from supporting real-time online games, such as Call of Duty, Halo or Madden.

Turn-based games, such as casino games, chess or strategy games, are not affected.

Others say satellite internet service is inconsistent and at the mercy of the weather.

Orleans County Legislator Lynne Johnson, R-Lyndonville, used Hughes several years ago, and eventually abandoned it over the inconsistency of coverage, as well as slowness and the data caps.

But Johnson said that with improved technology and state funds, she expects the service to be much better.

"I'm sure Hughes Net has upgraded since I had it, and now with funding that they've gotten, they'll be required to do a whole lot more," Johnson said.

Others, such as Stern, are less optimistic.

"I still wouldn't buy it (with reduced prices from state funding)," Stern said. "It's just not real internet"

“We have cried and cried and cried for real internet because this is all we've had," he added. "It's a slap in the face that they're telling us it's good enough.”

Meanwhile, others are frustrated that they will have to wait years for broadband cable.

Emily Christiansen, of Gasport, said they were told at the beginning of Charter Communications' build-out that high-speed internet would reach them by late 2017. She's not told they won't have broadband until May 2020.

Last month, the state Public Service Commission fined Charter $1 million, claiming that more than 14,000 of the addresses Charter counted in its build-out report last December should be disqualified. The disqualifications put Charter more than 8,000 locations short of its build-out obligation of 36,771.

In January 2016, Charter agreed to bring its high-speed internet to 145,000 addresses statewide as a condition of its acquisition of Time Warner Cable. The company was obligated to reach 36,5000 new locations each year.

But Charter had trouble meeting those obligations early on. Last September, Charter agreed to a $13 million settlement with the state after reaching less than half of its first target in May 2017.

Christiansen said lack of internet prevents her from working at home, and worries it will hinder her children from completing their homework. Her oldest just entered Kindergarten.

"We have to contemplate, do we move by 2020 if this isn't in place for our kids?" she said.

Stern said he's also considering moving over internet access. He rattled off a list of crucial activities hindered by lack of internet: job and college applications, little league sign-ups, accessing school documents, even programming a TV or using a treadmill.

“We lost a part of the everyday goings on of our world," Stern said.

Stern acknowledged they chose to live where it's difficult to reach internet access. “We chose (to live here) a long time before the internet was in everything we live," he said.

©2018 the Lockport Union-Sun & Journal (Lockport, N.Y.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.