PLATTSBURGH — Having cellular and broadband coverage is a health, safety and economic issue, State Sen. Betty Little said.
“We’re not going to get people to come and live in the Adirondacks without cell coverage and broadband.”
Little (R-Queensbury) and Assemblyman D. Billy Jones (D-Plattsburgh) are members of the Upstate Cellular Coverage Task Force, which Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced in September.
The two lawmakers as well as Adirondack Mountain Club Executive Director Neil Woodworth and Dave Wolff of AdkAction were part of a community forum on cellular and broadband service in the North Country hosted by Mountain Lake PBS Monday.
The forum will air Friday night.
Jones said the task force's first step was to identify areas that do and do not have service.
Little said those include the drive from Malone to Tupper Lake, where only the area around Paul Smith's College has cell coverage, and the route from Plattburgh to Saranac Lake.
Though coverage on I-87 has improved, she pointed out that cell service drops at exit 30, then picks back up about three or four miles north of there.
“We’re tackling the major routes in and out of areas here in the rural North Country and all over upstate," Jones said.
Woodworth said the Forest Preserve Health and Safety Land Account Amendment — passed in November 2017 — allows for the burying of new fiber broadband lines within a certain distance of the highway that runs through the Adirondack Forest Preserve.
“I think one of the things that we’re all going to learn is that there’s going to be, very soon, a nexus between broadband with bandwidth and cellular quality as those technologies are brought together.”
Woodworth lives in the hamlet of Wanakena, where he hooks a Verizon box to his broadband internet in order to provide himself and neighbors within 500 feet with cellular coverage.
“But that’s just the beginning of a technology that I think will bring broadband and cellular to the last mile.”
The Adirondack Park Associations’s restrictions require cell towers to be “substantially invisible,” which can be difficult unless they are disguised, Little said.
She thinks that conceding towers within the Adirondack Park must look like trees could be a starting point.
"They don’t really ruin anybody’s view and every place you look there’s a tree that stands above the ridgeline, so I really think that’s our hope going forward.”
Little argued that higher towers are more environmental, since the the environment would be disrupted fewer times.
Aside from height, the expense of a tower must be considered, Woodworth said, since providers may not want to put up towers that will not pay for themselves in a certain amount of time.
"You could solve that problem if you have enough state aid. But, certainly, you can’t leave the money out of things.”
Little said the APA's "substantially invisible" clause could be changed, since it is not a law in the state of New York.
"It is about health, safety and our economy,” she reiterated.
Jones said the task force would discuss whether to ask the APA to re-evaluate the "substantially invisible" clause, as others have asked them to do so for quite some time.
The answer may be underground broadband lines, which would present easier maintenance, Woodworth said.
100 AT 100
New York's goal should be "100 at 100," Wolff said.
That means, "100 percent of the households and businesses should have access to 100 megabits per second or better."
He commended the state for aiming to make sure 99 percent of households reach that level through the New NY Broadband Program and Spectrum’s required build-out to 145,000 additional households.
But the bad news is that the remaining 1 percent includes about 100,000 homes, many of which are in this area, Wolff said.
“What we need to do is figure out where they are, what it’s going to cost to get to them and we need to go raise money to … help existing providers who have fiber or (coaxial) to extend their networks to get to all people that will be un-served when the programs are done."
The task force must submit its recommendations to the governor by Dec. 1.
“The next phase in this is to see what pops up in the governor’s budget," Jones said
“Hopefully — we’re confident he’ll take some of these recommendations and put some money behind this.”
The task force will have to contend with the governor’s cap on state spending, Woodworth said, since rising human services and benefits costs do not leave much for new infrastructure investment.
When host Thom Hallock invited the audience to ask questions, North Country Chamber of Commerce President/CEO Garry Douglas said the top request for action in Albany that came out of a recent survey of 4,000 businesses in five counties was expanded cell service and continued broadband.
Without providing specifics, he said that potential investors in meetings have essentially said the area seems great, then were unable to call or even email their home offices.
Douglas added that Cuomo has been a friend to the region and his terms in office have seen unprecedented funding.
“I haven’t seen, over the last eight years, a well-conceived ask that his administration hasn’t tried to be responsive to.”
Wolff called the cellular coverage and broadband issue “the cheapest infrastructure plight you can have from an economic development standpoint.
“It think it’s a public necessity, it’s a public good and it’s something that we just need to do.”
“Your hospitals need broadband, your schools need broadband, your businesses need broadband and homes need broadband,” Woodworth said.
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WATCH THE FORUM
The community forum on cellular and broadband access in the North Country will air at 8 p.m. Friday on Mountain Lake PBS.