Broadband partnership targets rural areas in three Catskills counties

Above: This map, from the Delaware County Electric Cooperative website, shows areas targeted for construction of fiber-optic data lines.

Just as the Rural Electrification Administration brought electric power to remote areas of the nation in the 1930s, a partnership between local utility companies is working to bring broadband internet access to outlying areas of Delaware County and adjacent towns.

Representatives of the Delaware County Electric Cooperative (DCEC), the Delhi Telephone Company (DTC) and the Margaretville Telephone Company (MTC) began a series of visits to town council meetings on Wednesday, Aug. 5 in

Hamden to talk about the first phase of the Delaware County Broadband Initiative – a joint effort to provide fiber-optic broadband service within the area served by the electric cooperative.

While most of the expansion is within Delaware County, it spills over into the Sullivan County town of Rockland, the Ulster County town of Hardenburgh and the Schoharie County towns of Jefferson and Gilboa.

Above: Mark Schneider, the general manager of the Delaware County Electric Cooperative, explains the Delaware County Broadband Initiative at a meeting of the Hamden Town Council. Photo by Robert Cairns. 

DCEC General Manager Mark Schneider said that the objective of the initiative is “to get broadband service to as many cooperative members as we can with the money we have.”

That money includes a $2.9 million state grant from the Connect NY Broadband Program and approximately $3.8 million invested by the two telephone companies.

Schneider said that the electric cooperative's contribution to the project comes in the form of reduced fees for connection to its utility poles and “in-kind” support services.

DCEC serves 5,300 customers, some of whom already have access to broadband service.

“The objective is to bring broadband to those who don't have it,” Schneider said. That includes 1,800 homes and businesses in the first phase of the project, which will target portions of the towns of Hamden, Kortright, Meredith, Harpersfield and Colchester in Delaware County and Jefferson in Schoharie County.

The construction will be independent of ongoing expansion already underway by both telephone companies. (In July, MTC officials were present at a “broadband pep rally” in the Greene County town of Lexington to pursue another state grant for broadband.)

Work is scheduled to begin in the first quarter of 2016, but depends on the completion of paperwork for the state grant. Schneider said that has been an obstacle.

“We're moving at state government pace,” he said. “We do think we're pretty close to having contracts signed.” Schneider said that the state grant, announced in December 2014, “was the only broadband grant that was approved by the state that year.” 

He said that state officials looked favorably upon the partnership of small companies under local control.

“We're certainly going to try to make the most of that partnership when we apply for funding for phase two,” he said.

While the project is designed to reach people without broadband, it will reach people who have dial-up or Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) service, even if that service is provided by a competing telephone company such as Verizon or Frontier.

Schneider said that Verizon is not interested in expanding its broadband offerings north of White Plains except in the city of Albany, and has faced criticism over lack of broadband access in Buffalo.

“When they won't do it for Buffalo, they won't do it for you,” he said.

Even with the expansion, some local residents may find themselves left out.

“Fiber construction is very expensive,” Schneider said. “Tens of thousands of dollars per mile.”

For that reason, he said, a lone residence far from a route that will serve more customers, might not get broadband.

DTC General Manager Jason Miller said that such decisions will be based on “how we can serve the greater good.”

Miller said that 70 percent of DTC customers already have broadband access, and that he expects all of the company's copper wire to be replaced with optic fiber cable within eight years. Schneider said that the partners will continue to seek state funding for the second phase of the project, and that Governor Andrew Cuomo has set aside $500 million for such projects, but that no application process or timeline have been released by state officials. 

He said that he expects the grant process to be “more competitive,” and that a county-wide approach is being developed in cooperation with the Delaware County Department of Economic Development and other local partners. Glenn Faulkner, the general manager at MTC, said that such partnerships are key to continued funding, and said that high-speed data is important to the local economy.

“We all know that broadband is kind of an important economic development component,” he said. He said the broadband initiative partnership “really painted a nice picture, a compelling picture,” to state officials who reviewed the grant application. Still, he said, “We have a long way to go.”

Full disclosure: Lissa Harris, the publisher of the Watershed Post, is a shareholder in the Margaretville Telephone Company. The business was founded in 1916 by Harris's great-great-grandfather, John Birdsall, and remains in the family. Harris is not employed by the company or involved in its management.

Previous coverage: 

Lexington hosts first-ever broadband pep rally, July 21, 2015

In visit to Roxbury, state officials vow faster Internet for rural NY, March 2, 2015

$15 million in grants go to Catskills organizations, Dec. 12, 2014