County. Connected.

Proposal aims to bring broadband to unserved areas of Sullivan County

By ANNEMARIE SCHUETZ
Posted 9/2/20

MONTICELLO, NY — On the surface, the whole thing has that “Little Rascals” feel: “Come on, let’s set up county-wide wireless broadband!” 

But the project, …

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County. Connected.

Proposal aims to bring broadband to unserved areas of Sullivan County

Posted

MONTICELLO, NY — On the surface, the whole thing has that “Little Rascals” feel: “Come on, let’s set up county-wide wireless broadband!” 

But the project, spearheaded by Sullivan County Commissioner for Information Technology Lorne Green, is serious. 

Years of hoping private companies would provide county-wide broadband could be over. 

He outlined the project at the August 13 Sullivan County Management and Budget Committee meeting.

“It’s phenomenal,” said legislator Mike Brooks. “This year with the pandemic, with the huge, insatiable need for bandwidth, if nothing else it’s showing us how far behind [we are].”

But without the buy-in from private enterprise, the county had to innovate. It’s joining other rural areas, in the U.S. and beyond, that are creating their own solutions. The Kansas City Fed, in their report, “Disconnected,” outlined American solutions from rural cooperatives to pole attachment policies to public/private partnerships (available here and worth the read: www.bit.ly/kcdisconnected). 

But each area is different. 

In Sullivan County, the idea grew out of IT’s work using point-to-point wireless to connect key parts of county government “in the rare event that fiber communications went away,” Green said in an interview later. If land-based communications went down, “we could communicate over the air.” 

Why not expand that to unserved parts of the county? “It took off from there.” 

All you need are tall, stable things with a clear line of sight. EMS towers, for instance. Windmills. It would create “individual small-scale rebroadcast,” he said. “It can be done from anywhere, on a three-story building” for instance. Using existing towers is less expensive than creating new infrastructure, too. 

The service would be faster than DSL, which is all that’s available to some areas of the county. (Not counting those places that just have dial-up or nothing.) Green mentioned download speeds up to 200 mbps, although upload speeds hadn’t yet been determined. 

Future upgrades could be cheaper, too, since wireless connections mean that the labor of stringing new cable isn’t a factor. 

So the IT department did a predictive study looking at potential coverage, using 12 existing or planned towers, all but one county-owned. It could bring broadband to 60 percent of the county’s residents. 

“This is transformational,” Green said.

A pilot project will be launched in Monticello. 

Former Fremont supervisor George Conklin, now a legislator, talked about the Upstate New York Towns Association, which has done similar work using streetlights and churches. 

Legislator Nadia Rajsz brought up the importance of Zoom and telemedicine now. “At least there’s hope.” 

“Without more broadband, you aren’t going to grow the western side of the county,” legislature chair Rob Doherty said.

Next step: pulling the funding together. Green said there are “a lot of broadband grants being offered at the federal level,” which would keep down the county’s share of the costs. An LDC was created to oversee that end and to manage the land, towers and equipment needed. 

And once the tower network is in place and everything’s connected, getting seniors and other traditionally reluctant internet users to embrace it will be another challenge. Sometimes broadband’s too expensive, sometimes it just doesn’t seem useful, said the Kansas City Fed. 

But nobody’s questioning that having it means another reason to relocate here, whether you’re a human being or a business. 

“How are we going to attract companies without the fastest broadband we can provide?” asked Sullivan County Partnership president Marc Baez. “It’s critical.”

Pennsylvania residents are probably out of luck.

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance notes that in PA, local solutions to a lack of broadband can only be put in place if the community is unserved. Pennsylvania is one of 19 states with barriers to a project like Sullivan County’s (www.bit.ly/19statesbarriers). 

Additional resources:

www.bit.ly/broadbandeconomics 

www.bit.ly/broadbandcovid 

www.cnet.co/2ERRl0A

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