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Warren County, N.Y., Groups Partner to Extend Broadband

The economic development corporation in the county has worked with county GIS, an area planning board and the state to push out high-speed Internet to roughly 4 percent of households without it.

(TNS) — Warren County is trying to bring broadband Internet access to remote and underserved areas, areas often very difficult to reach and often serving just a few customers, making the process expensive. However, the county is pushing to get the job done, sooner rather than later.

The Warren County Economic Development Corporation, Lake Champlain-Lake George Regional Planning Board, and Warren County Geographic Information Systems are collaborating to find a solution. These groups have worked for years to influence broadband policy decisions, create a mapping system to figure out broadband availability, and obtain grant funding for broadband deployment.

All three entities have worked regularly with the New York State ConnectALL Office, which is the state agency responsible for broadband.

"The pandemic brought our lack of broadband in many areas back to the fore," Warren County GIS Administrator Sara Frankenfeld said. Warren County uses GIS software to locate, display, track and analyze geographic information, according to their website.

"As people were working from home and kids were doing school from home, [broadband] really came roaring back to the top of the list as an issue we needed to address at that point in time," Frankenfeld said.

Currently, 96% of households in Warren County have broadband availability. However, the remaining households are difficult and expensive to get connected, mainly due to the remote nature of their locations, according to Frankenfeld.

"The problem is unserved populations continue to be unserved," Horicon Town Supervisor Michael Geraci said. "It's very frustrating in 2024 to see the end of the line. The only reason it's the end of the line is because carriers don't feel there's enough customers for the return on their investment."

As one of the northernmost towns in Warren County, Horicon currently has 165 addresses that don't have broadband access — the fourth most in Warren County behind Chester, at 315, and Johnsburg and Warrensburg, both at 175.

"These are practical, everyday issues that seem to go nowhere in this awful black hole. How, in 2024, do we have a dead spot between (exits) 22 and 23 on the Northway?" Geraci said.

"As life gets more and more digital, the divide between those four percent that are unconnected and the rest of us is growing larger and larger," Frankenfeld added.

As a result of urgency during the pandemic, the collaborative effort undertook a street level mapping campaign to determine broadband availability throughout the county.

A similar first analysis of countywide broadband availability in Warren County occurred in 2014 under the direction of the late- Ed Bartholomew, former Glens Falls Mayor and Warren County EDC President.

As expected, the mapping and outreach programs showed that the populated areas of Glens Falls and Queensbury had sufficient access to broadband, while availability grew scarcer in the northern towns of Warren County, Frankenfeld said.

In 2020, "EDC and the County also worked with SLIC to do a fiber expansion and connected 1,700 additional homes in Johnsburg, Thurman and Stony Creek," Frankenfeld said. SLICFiber provides Northern New York with broadband service over a fiber-optic network.

After an unsuccessful attempt to secure a grant from the federal NTIA Broadband Infrastructure Program, a new development came when President Joe Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act into law in 2021. With this law came $42.5 billion in Federal Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment funding.

New York State is expected to receive $664 million worth of BEAD funds.

"The state estimates that to connect everybody who's not connected statewide costs about $1.9 billion. So, there is a gap. The state is required to submit a planning document to the FCC in order to receive the allocation. They're in the process of that right now," Frankenfeld said.

Once the money is distributed across New York State, the Internet Service Providers, or ISPs, will bid on where they will deploy broadband.

"They'll say, 'I want area Y, and it will cost this much money, and this is what you should get me to do.' That's what we're waiting for to happen towards the end of this year," Frankenfeld said.

"[Carriers] could care less about public safety," Geraci said. "They could care less about the kids that can't do homework during COVID because they don't have the ability. They (kids) have to come to town hall, sit in the parking lot in the winter to do that. This is time and time again."

"There's a lot of discussion, but how much forward motion is actually going to make a change? Very frustrating for those of us that have these populations," Geraci continued.

Geraci also mentioned that northern residents have become complacent and discouraged that anything will happen regarding broadband coverage.

John Wheatley, vice president of Warren County EDC, believes that in order to better attract these ISPs to the area, certain incentives should be in place, especially those that change utility pole access regulations, reduce permitting delays, and lessen excessive fees.

"All of those things take an inordinate amount of time and a lot of cost to the providers," Wheatley said.

One of the ways to address the cost issue is to bring provider competition. The Warren County EDC is looking to connect carriers to municipalities to expand competitive coverage.

"Bringing second carriers into the environment is a big part of the next chapter of this," Warren County EDC President Jim Siplon said. "If we're going to address the availability, we're going to have to be at the forefront of affordability, and that requires competition."

"It's a little bit of a delicate dance because we're working with all of these carriers, at the same time to try to cooperate at one point and compete at another," Siplon added.

In the next one or two months, the Lake Champlain Lake George Regional Planning Board will finalize a regional broadband deployment plan, according to the board's Director Beth Gilles. Gilles also encouraged Warren County Supervisors to track ISP interest in county grant areas and share information with the NYS ConnectALL Office.

©2024 The Post Star, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.