3:13pm

Fri March 23, 2012
Tech

Money, mountains and maps block broadband coverage

About a year ago, Claire Perez started trying to figure out why she doesn’t have broadband at her house in West Dryden.

Time Warner’s cable ends a half-mile down Perez’s busy road. She’s walked up and down the street, knocking on doors, finding out who has high-speed Internet and who doesn’t.

Perez and her neighbors beyond the end of the line do have access to a satellite service. But that has a daily cap on it, so Perez can’t stream long videos.

“I’m only .5 miles from these Time Warner connections on a major route, ten miles from Cornell University, and nobody can help me in the government get connected and every time I’ve gone to various things it’s like no, no, no,” says Perez.

Perez says that Time Warner considers it too expensive to extend their line to her house. She says they quoted her a price of $23,000.

Government tries to step in

Perez’s frustration is not uncommon, according to Tompkins county legislator Pat Pryor.

Pryor is the head of the county’s broadband committee. She says when she was campaigning in her rural district, many people complained about how slow their Internet is.

“Rural families are no different than anybody else that way,” says Pryor.

But getting broadband Internet to rural areas is not easy or cheap.

A company has to run a line along the road, rent space on poles, and connect it to each house. In many cases - like Perez’s - it’s simply not worth it for large companies like Time Warner or Verizon to reach houses in rural areas.

Government could step in and help with the problem. The 2009 stimulus act included money for expanding broadband into rural areas. There were fourteen stimulus grants awarded to New York organizations, totaling more than $200 million.

But, according to the official maps that show where broadband reaches, almost all of Tompkins County was incorrectly shown as covered.

Pryor says that has made funding much harder to find.

“It matters, because a lot of times [the maps are] what grant funding is predicated on,” says Pryor. “[Funders say] If you don’t have any unserved areas, why would you need a grant? We’re almost 100 percent covered, why would we need any money?”

The federal maps

The federal government considers a census block covered if it contains a single house with broadband. That works in urban areas, but not rural ones where one house could have service but the neighbors don’t.

Pryor’s committee and the state are working on fixing those maps by doing more detailed research.

New maps from American University’s School of Communication show who actually has broadband, known as adoption rates, based on census department data. They differ from the federal maps in that they show where broadband is being used - instead of where it might be available.

But access to grants might not solve the problem.

The head of the state’s broadband program office, David Salway, says every underserved area faces its own challenges, and has to be looked at separately.

“So it’s not a one size fits all kind of a problem that you can solve with one solution,” says Salway.

He says in some places, like Tompkins County, a system of towers that relay a wireless signal could reach the last houses. In other places, it might be fiber or cable or a combination of technologies.

A frustrating year

Those plans don’t do much for Claire Perez in Dryden.

“Why isn’t there somebody, with Internet being as big as it is, why isn’t this problem being solved in a more aggressive fashion? In fact, I’m so angry that I have to refocus my energies. I really do,” she says.

After a yearlong obsession, Perez is coming to realize that there might not be a solution.

Tompkins County might find funding for its wireless network. And they might find enough towers so they can relay the wireless signal.

But if Perez is hidden from the view of those towers, she might still be out of luck.