Rural companies connecting neighbors through NY broadband program

Oct 11, 2017
Originally published on October 11, 2017 12:25 pm

New York’s Broadband for All program hopes to bring broadband speed internet to the entire state by the end of 2018. This has led to an opportunity for local companies in rural areas, who are taking advantage of the state funds to expand to underserved customers.

"How Many of Us Are There?"

Husband and wife duo Bill Gruber and Helen McLean live in Franklin, NY. Their home sits among the rolling hills of rural Delaware County.

“I mean this is basically a dirt road with three or four residents on the whole length,” Gruber said.

The couple runs Gibson Hill Services, a small tech-support business. Gruber said the internet service provider in the area is Frontier, a national corporation that serves many rural areas.

“It’s pretty good for a rural telephone company whose stocks in the toilet, who keeps spending money serving these underserved customers who basically--they’re not making money on this," Gruber said. "How many of us are there?”

Bill and Helen’s internet is slow. Financially, it might not make sense for Frontier to provide them broadband speed internet without the state’s money.

Now, Frontier has won funding for other rural areas through the broadband program, but that is rare. Most of the companies that have won awards have been local. Other big corporations have not been as interested because the bar is high.

The state’s definition of “broadband speed” is 100 megabits per second (Mbps). Bill and Helen say they would take even a third of that.

“I guess it’s still slow by modern standards but we’d be quite happy with it," Gruber said.

"Good for the Community...Good for Us"

Mark Schneider wants to get people like Bill and Helen that broadband speed internet. Schneider’s the CEO of the Delaware County Electric Cooperative. That means it is owned by the customers it serves. 

The group is in a partnership with two local companies, Delhi Telephone Co. and Margaretville Telephone Co.

“Our objective as a cooperative is pretty simple," Schneider said. "We want to get  broadband to all of our members,” Schneider said.

Local companies have a vested interest in these communities. After all, that is where they are based.

“The local company that sees the viability of our community as central to their existence and central to who they are as human beings, they’re saying, ‘Well, if I can do a little bit better than break even, it’s good for the community and it’s good for us,'” said Schneider.

Schneider’s co-op has different priorities than many large companies, which can be content with serving lesser internet in rural areas because residents are willing to pay for whatever they can get.

“Which again may meet people’s needs today, in some cases," Schneider said. "But certainly in the future it’s not going to meet their needs.”

Different Priorities

Large corporations, like Verizon, might not be as apt to serve these areas because they answer to shareholders. They want to turn a profit this quarter.

A profit can be hard to get in area like rural Delaware County. “There’s nothing wrong with it, really, except as a member owned organization we want to get to every last member.” Schneider explained.

That’s exactly the goal of New York’s broadband program. The state wants to bring broadband to every resident. 

“I think we always knew we were going to get really strong interest and participation from the regional players,” said Jeff Nordhaus, the Executive Vice President for Innovation & Broadband at Empire State Development Corporation. “After all it makes sense that these are the companies that are, for the most part, owned in New York State, based in New York State.” 

Plus, these regional companies aren’t going anywhere. They have been around for decades. Many started as cable or telephone companies and transitioned into broadband. 

The state money coupled with federal funds recently deferred to New York is making it really enticing for the local company not only to expand broadband access, but expand as a business.

“We’re seeing both of our partners hire employees with salaries and benefits that are local people, that are skilled jobs, that are great things to add to the communities,” Schneider said. 

Those extra employees are needed. The deadline to finish these projects is less than a year and a half away. And the more rural the projects get, the more workers are needed to meet that deadline.

Copyright 2017 WBFO-FM 88.7. To see more, visit WBFO-FM 88.7.