Having previously shared a vision for Adirondack telecommuting, my plan this week is to describe the current state of broadband and telecommuting in the park in some detail and then point towards the future, laying out a handful of important issues related to its long-term viability.
That plan has gotten a big boost from the readers of the Almanack. A number of you wrote in to illustrate the current state of telecommuting far better than I could have, in comments written in response to last to last week’s Dispatch. They were wonderful, revealing that while telecommuting in the Adirondacks is not commonplace, there is no question that its future is already here, thanks to these pioneer Wild Workers (this label, after the suggestion of a reader, is perfect for the situation, plus it is kind of charming). Choosing to live in the Adirondacks while working elsewhere is something that is happening right now. That fact should give a big shot of optimism to those who worry about the economy of the park.
In order to understand the current environment I have been fortunate enough to have had wonderful conversations over the last few weeks with some of the movers and shakers who are at the forefront of shaping a wired Adirondack future. In particular I need to credit and thank Dave Mason of the Adirondack Futures Project, Dave Wolff of ADK Action and Dr. Diane Litynski, Director of the Business Management and Entrepreneurship Studies program at Paul Smiths College. Each of them gave me a wealth of information.
These professionals and others give the Adirondacks a leg up in the competition to build an ideal environment for telecommuting. Without naming names, some of the Information Technology movers and shakers in the region have world-class credentials and could work or live anywhere in the world. The fact that they choose to live in the park and actively use their skills for the betterment of our communities, often as volunteers, is a clear testament to the allure of the very balance between wilderness and civilized livability that these Dispatches have been promoting. I think it is important for skeptical or uninformed readers to understand the significance of this kind of professional sophistication and dedication being present right here in the North Country.
The current state of affairs is in a period of rapid evolution. Until recently telecommuting pioneers in the Adirondacks have been working from an Internet infrastructure which has been scant in the park as a whole. Phone and cable companies have penetrated many of the hamlets where cable and DSL services are available. In less dense areas outside of hamlets it is not cost-effective to provide any sort of broadband services so dial-up connection has been the only option. Cell phone based service is expanding in the park but as we all know it remains spotty, unreliable and not terribly fast.
In order for telecommuting to become ubiquitous a more robust broadband connection is needed. Even counting higher speed DSL and cable as “robust,” there hasn’t been much in the Adirondacks. Dave Wolff shared this with me: “Per the NYS Office of Cyber Security, there are very few areas in the Park with availability of high speed Broadband, as defined by NYS (6 Mbps download and 1.5 Mbps upload).”
But this is changing dramatically. The Development Authority of the North Country (DANC) just completed a “middle-mile” (high speed fiber trunk line) line right through the northern part of the Park, passing through the Tri-Lakes region including a loop to Tupper Lake. A private entrepreneur is running spur to Long Lake. DANC has nearly completed a run further north from Plattsburgh through Malone. A middle-mile run to the west was completed last year, connecting Watertown to Utica. ACTION, a consortium of 48 North Country medical institutions, is spurring installation of high-capacity fiber run throughout much of the park. An existing middle-mile line stretches along the Northway. In short, the Adirondack region is being blanketed with fiber, much of it overbuilt for present and near-term needs. This is the kind of infrastructure, capable of gigabit bandwidth, that will allow for the kind of scenario I presented last week, a state-of-the-art virtual office capability made real for remote workers.
What remains is to connect home, educational and business users to these pipelines, known in the business as the “last-mile” connection. In larger Adirondack communities this is a simple matter. The cost to connect end-users to the middle-mile has been dropping. Fiber is now cheaper than the coaxial wire used for cable TV. In smaller communities and outlying areas the challenge is more significant, partly due to technology issues and partly due to economics. But progress is being made on both fronts. An example on the technology side is a pilot project in the Town of Thurman. The nationwide switch from analog to digital TV several years ago made lower radio frequencies available that work much more effectively with longer distances and line-of-sight obstacles than current wireless technology. Obviously both are issues in the Adirondacks. This “Whitespace” or “TV Band” space has the potential to support broadband connections wirelessly at speeds comparable to DSL or cable. Thurman is trying it out as I write this. On the economic side, New York State is funding expansion of broadband into rural regions of the state where it would not otherwise be feasible through a $25 million program called Connect NY.
Along with the creation of the telecommuting infrastructure the Adirondack region has smart, forward-thinking people pushing the adoption of high-speed technology. There are numerous examples, from the telecommuting promoter in the Indian Lake region who has gone to great trouble to develop a web-site listing available jobs and offering telecommuting resources and tips, to the staff at Clarkson University who hold the annual “Forever Wired” conference. Let me share two of the best examples of our broadband pioneers.
The first example is a gentleman named Mark Dzwonczyk. A Silicon Valley entrepreneur who was born in upstate New York, he returned to the North Country in 2011 and became CEO of the Nicholville Telephone Company. He put in his own high-speed broadband connection to his camp in Upper Saint Regis, allowing twenty six of his neighbors to connect as well. Now Nicholville Telephone’s Internet subsidiary, SLIC Network Solutions, is installing state-of-the-art broadband in Franklin, St. Lawrence and Hamilton Counties, at the forefront of Adirondack broadband.
The second example is the Keene Town-Wide Broadband Project. The High Peaks Education Foundation, in a public-private partnership with the locally-owned ISP, Keene Valley Video and Internet (KVVI), raised their own funds, leveraged the existing cable infrastructure and wired the town of Keene using fiber to the home. Keene is now the most wired community in the Adirondacks. Professor Litynski conducted a survey to study the economic impact of this project. Among the results were these: nearly half of the residents earn part of their income using this technology; three-quarters of second home owners have increased their time at their second homes because the connectivity allows them to.
So what does the future look like? Frankly, it looks economically bright. There are multiple dimensions to the future economics, but a good place to start is seasonal residents. Here are excerpts from two of the comments my Dispatch got last week. First, Joe:
We share your vision, and your aspirations here in Schroon Lake, where we are hoping to build out the fiber optic infrastructure you describe. I am even more optimistic than you are. In many areas of the Adirondacks the fuel for the fire to light up the economy is already here – the weekend homeowners who would love to spend more time here. No marketing necessary!
I applaud your promotion of this concept. I’m not yet a full-time resident at my Adirondack home, but one of the reasons I can’t be relates to connectivity. In addition to my own technological needs, I have family members whose visits have to be limited due to the challenges of communication in Northern Warren County. Cellphone reception and broadband need to be much more available. This is a potential game-changer for the region – I firmly believe that!
The message is loud and clear: if we build it they will come; more specifically, they will stay year round.
Let’s consider a few numbers. Quantifying the direct economic benefits of one person on their community – taxes, spending, investment – is exceedingly difficult, but the order of magnitude is in the ten-thousand-dollars. Indirect economic benefits increase the number more. Let’s take a conservative economic benefit figure of $20,000 per adult (by any measure – household income, expenditures, GDP per capita – this is certainly low). Now suppose that one out of every ten seasonal residents decides to live here year-round because the telecommuting infrastructure will allow it. The APA has a published estimate of seasonal residents from the year 2008. Based upon that (which is also low, as the 2010 census shows seasonal residents on the increase), here is the yearly economic benefit of telecommuting for a few Adirondack counties:
- Clinton County: $ 3,276,000
- Essex County: $12,662,000
- Franklin County: $10,110,000
- Hamilton County: $11,052,000
- Warren County: $11,578,000
Now those kinds of numbers may not be a “right now” or a “next year,” but they damned well ought to be a goal. And this does not even include all the non-seasonal folks that could be marketed to in the same effort.
In addition, indirect economic benefits should not be overlooked. In order to support a robust telecommuting industry other services need to be provided, from better regional travel services to overnight delivery companies such as UPS or FedEx to copy centers that offer office and shipping services. All of these are economic contributors waiting to happen as the market for their services increases. As Dave Mason put it: “Trends suggest that if we build the network infrastructure, the economic side of this will self-assemble at a nice pace, slow enough not to be disruptive and strong enough to be self-evident after five years or so. It should strengthen existing businesses too. And it won’t have the dependency on large employers like the old mining and paper companies that have economic collapse in the wake of their failures in the park.”
One final point: if you read comments (on the Almanack and elsewhere) by people who telecommute or want to do it, an unmistakable common denominator is wilderness. People want a wild, unspoiled place to live. I therefore conclude this series of economic Dispatches by once again advocating for both an increasingly vibrant wild ecosystem and an increasingly vibrant human ecosystem. Let’s have both. Let’s stop pretending and insisting that they necessarily have to be two different things, in tired opposition to each other. The Adirondacks deserve nothing less than to be an example to the world of how to do it.
To close out the 2012 calendar year I will return to storytelling. I’ve saved some of the best for last. In the meantime, I say Happy Thanksgiving to all of you. I am thankful for each and every person who takes the time to read these Dispatches.
Photo: the boardroom at Lost Brook Tract