Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Status of Broadband in the Adirondack Park

If you live in one of the larger Adirondack communities like Old Forge or Lake Placid, chances are you can hook in to some form of high-speed Internet, broadly called broadband. If you live in a small-to-middling hamlet like Cranberry Lake—or if you live in between, on a lakeshore or in the woods—you might be among the nine percent of Americans still using slow, shaky dial-up, or one of a handful using expensive and unreliable satellite, or you just don’t bother.

There are no solid numbers on how many Adirondack Park residents have the option of high-speed Internet. Even local officials often don’t know who can wire to what and where in their towns. (These county maps provide the most complete picture, but an official with the state Office for Technology cautions that the Adirondack data are incomplete.)

Most Adirondack broadband users tie in via DSL (digitally enhanced phone line) or cable modem. But a handful of places like Keene have isolated ganglia of fiber-optic cable, the fastest option by far. Fiber optic is called “future proof”: odds are against a better technology replacing it. The hairlike glass strands offer more bandwidth than we’ll ever need, and they’re not far away, literally. The Adirondack Park is surrounded on the east, south and west by major fiber optic cables. They are buried along the Northway (I-87) and the Thruway (I-90), and they run roughly parallel to I-81 from Syracuse to the top of the state.

The reason we’re not hooked in to these trunk lines is that it’s just not profitable enough for Verizon and other private Internet service providers to lay miles and miles of secondary wire to the relatively few, dispersed customers that populate the Adirondacks. That’s why North Country economic- and technology-development organizations are applying for some of the $7.2 billion in federal stimulus plan funds earmarked to bring broadband to rural and low-income areas.

In the northeastern Adirondacks, CBN Connect, a nonprofit affiliated with SUNY Plattsburgh, is seeking $22 million in government money in hopes of starting work this year stringing 420 miles of fiber across Clinton, Essex and Franklin Counties. The open-access line would run from the Canadian border to Ticonderoga and from Lake Champlain to Tupper Lake. CBN is also designing a network and applying for permits to bring fiber to Hamilton, Warren and Washington Counties.

West of the park, the Development Authority of the North Country (DANC) has already built a model of rural Internet-ification, having strung 750 miles of open-access fiber by 2003. However, the line penetrates the Adirondack Park only as far as Newton Falls, where a paper mill needed high-speed to stay in touch with its Canadian owner. DANC officials say they would also like to apply for stimulus funds to expand broadband service in the western park.

These government-funded lines would not be the ones that attach to your house; these are more like main roads. It will still be up to private Internet service providers to step in and use these fiber backbones to offer service to homes and businesses—and connection fees will presumably drop since the really costly part has been subsidized and there will be competition among providers. What connects your house won’t necessarily be fiber, either, though the technology is well-adapted for towns like Keene where houses can be miles apart and mountains block airwaves. A lot of population centers will stick with cable or DSL, though linked to faster, fatter networks. Some will supplement with wireless; officials in Saranac Lake, Tupper Lake and Cranberry Lake, for example, are looking at sending signals from towers to reach far-flung residents and shoreowners at minimal cost.

They are hoping that seasonal homeowners and vacationers will stay longer and spend more money here if they can work lakeside from an Adirondack chair. This is where the Why comes in—the economic and other rationales for wiring the park—and that is a subject for another post.

Map of DANC’s fiber-optic Open Access Telecom Network (OATN), west of the Adirondack Park. Maps of the Northway and Thruway fiber-optic lines are not available because they are considered “critical state infrastructure.”

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Mary Thill lives in Saranac Lake and has worked alternately in journalism and Adirondack conservation for three decades.




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