Yates County's broadband fiber network isn't lighting up

Clarification: See the clarification regarding satellite-based providers in the fifth paragraph of the section "The rural experience." 

It’s been more than three years since construction began on the dark fiber network in Yates County that brings high-speed broadband service to the county and connects the southern tier with Ontario County and north.

The intention behind construction of the network was to bring more competition to Verizon and Time-Warner (now Spectrum), according to Steve Manning, CEO of Southern Tier Network, the non-profit municipal cooperative that manages the network.

Yates County has invested about $600,000 in the project, but the network is not benefitting most residents, and many are frustrated by the lack of progress toward connectivity in the rural areas. It’s a situation that perplexes rural residents all around the U.S., and the federal and state governments don’t seem able to provide accurate details about coverage in rural areas.

While the Federal Communications Commission says 24.7 million Americans don’t have access to broadband, researchers at Microsoft say nearly 163 million people do not use the internet at broadband speeds, according to a Dec. 21 New York Times Report.

“Just A Nightmare”

Area residents list several choices for Internet Service Providers (ISP): Spectrum, Empire Access, Hughesnet, Exede, Frontier, Verizon, Straight Talk, NYSSYS, MiFi, Verizon Jetpack, Haefele, AT&T hotspot, Verizon LTD Devise, and Viasat. But not all of them are available in rural areas, and those that are available to rural areas get mixed reviews, and users are frustrated by the flood of unfulfilled promises from various companies:

“Just a nightmare.”

“Very expensive, but very reliable.”

“Unpredictable.”

Kendra Andrews, who lives right outside Dresden writes, “This day and age everyone uses the internet and I pay close to $100 for very unreliable service but I pay it because I need it.”

The network’s reach

While the new fiber network is being used by NYSEG, Yates County, and area health care providers, one ISP — Empire Access — is using it to expand its coverage from Branchport to Penn Yan, but that company’s focus is on more densely populated areas, according to Manning.

Spectrum and Frontier have each said they are not interested in using the network; that they plan to build out their own systems.

But there are several areas where traditional wired service isn’t available, and residents have been hoping for a wireless broadband connection.

When Manning and representatives from consulting firm ECC met with Yates County legislators in November, they explained why so many rural customers who can’t get regular cable or telephone internet service are still in the dark. No company has come forward to provide customer service — installing equipment in homes and managing the billing and service.

An optic fiber has been connected to one of the county’s radio towers on Sherman Hill. “They are ready to shoot a signal out from the tower north of Penn Yan, but no customer service company has come forward,” says Manning.

“If it was easy and people could make money, there would be people doing it,” says Manning, who says building a successful wireless broadband system is going to require more of a public-private partnership. He’s hoping plans in a local town lead to a pilot project that can be successful elsewhere, because potential providers are not coming forward. A request for proposals sent to 12 to 15 providers in 2017 only drew three responses which did not meet the area’s needs.

The Starkey option

In Starkey, town officials have given Supervisor George Lawson the authority to establish a plan to build a tower at the Starkey Town Highway barn on Glenora Road. A fiber to the tower could be connected, and equipment from that tower could send a wireless broadband signal to customers within a four mile radius.

“We have identified the need, and it’s clear there needs to be some municipal involvement,” says Lawson, who says there is still a lot of work to be done to come up with the costs of such a project, which he sees as a long term investment in the Starkey community.

Lawson told the town board in November that a study will help determine the number of residences within the four-mile line of sight radius that could potentially receive signals from equipment on the tower.

In early 2018, over 1,000 Yates County residents — most of them in rural areas — completed surveys to help STN officials pinpoint the highest needs. Many of the responses came from Starkey and Barrington.

The rural experience

There are many other potential customers around Yates County who are frustrated by the slow connection speeds they experience with the minimal services that are now available. Several responded to questions The Chronicle-Express posted on Facebook in November.

Many of the rural customers have tried dial-up and satellite service along with premium cellular service but their experiences have resulted in expensive yet slow and inconsistent connections that are sometimes limited in speed. For many, wired telephone systems are slow and poor, and cell signals are nonexistent.

A family that lives on Lovejoy Road has tried using various services that don’t meet their needs as homeschoolers.

“Gov. Cuomo’s ambitious ‘Broadband For All’ initiative has failed those of us in underserved areas. Instead of encouraging wired broadband providers to expand into the areas that have no access, the initiative called upon satellite providers to offer services,” wrote Crystal Gracioso, who says participating in online classes are basically out of the question.

“I would love to see Mr. Cuomo address the shortcoming in his initiative. Those of us that still lack full, uncapped access would tremendously appreciate it,” she writes. (CLARIFICATION: New York State's program is aimed at attracting broadband providers to rural areas, not satellite providers, and according to a state source, 99 percent of the initiative is aimed at wired broadband providers).

Serena Crossfield, who lives just three miles outside the village of Penn Yan, but in one of the many dark spots in the county where cell phone signals are spotty, says the lack of connectivity has hampered her ability to expand her business.

When she seeks service from different providers, she gets the same response that they are not currently offering services due to population density and costs.

She has become a regular at the Penn Yan Public Library and a Penn Yan coffee shop where she can make connections, but their hours of operation limit her ability to connect with clients who need her web design and online business support services.

In the western area of the county, a family that lives on Route 364 near the hamlet of Middlesex doesn’t have many options. Because of their location facing a wooded hillside, satellite service isn’t available, and the cable company tells them it will cost $6,000 to install cable 600 feet from Route 245. “Who knows if we will ever see reliable, high speed internet?” They ask.

The federal response

In the fall, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai acknowledged that rural Americans cannot rely on access to high-speed broadband, and he promised to continue working toward closing the digital divide through a subsidies program. “Rural Americans deserve services that are comparable to those in urban areas,” he wrote in a November blog.

The recently adopted Farm Bill reportedly includes $350 million a year in grants for rural broadband buildout and the USDA recently launched a pilot project to allocate an extra $600 million to encourage private investment. Both of those programs limit service to areas where service speeds are slower than 10 Mbps downloads and 1 Mbps uploads, lower than the FCC’s broadband threshold, which is 25 Mbps for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads. “That means some rural residents could be caught in the middle, with speeds too high for federal aid but too low to get first-class service,” writes Heather Chapman in The Rural Blog of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.

Telecommunications companies, rural electric cooperatives and utilities, internet service providers, and municipal governments can apply for funding from the USDA ReConnect Program.

A longtime proponent of broadband access to the Internet for rural areas, Tracy Mitrano, who has announced plans to challenge U.S. Rep. Tom Reed for the NY-23 Congressional seat in 2020, is unimpressed with provisions for doing so in the new farm bill.

“Yes, it’s good there are allocations for broadband deployment, but they are insufficient,” she says. “The total allocation isn’t even adequate to address Internet connectivity in our region for one year, but it’s supposed to meet the need for the next 10 years, for the entire United States. Small farmers do not have ten years to wait for connectivity to the degree and kind that they need to survive the tough times that they currently face.”

Mary Howell-Martens, who, with her husband Klaas and family, operates an organic farm on Ridge Road between Penn Yan and Dresden, says there are few options, and none of them offer sufficient high speed access or are reliable for their business needs.

“So this winter, we will be digging in a mile of cable to hardwire connect with Empire Access at the closest point. Totally at our own expense.”