Saturday, November 24, 2012

Lost Brook Dispatches:
Telecommuting Today and Tomorrow

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!

 Phil commented:

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


Pete Nelson

Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.

When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.

Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.




15 Responses

  1. Ben says:

    I’m skeptical about plans to increase telecommuting within the Adirondack park. You may be working at cross purposes to your need for “unspoiled territory.” It seems that should this vision succeed it will only lead to increased pressure on the natural world to be able to sustain itself. In my fifty plus years as a seasonal resident, I have witnessed the stresses upon the environment from increased human activity and needs.

    • Pete Nelson Pete Nelson says:

      Dear Ben:

      I have a feeling others will respond to this comment, but let me weigh in. Putting the needs of the people who live and work in the park aside for the moment, as well as the reality that much of the land that is now private is going to remain so, I can imagine two thematic visions for the park.

      In one vision the goal is to make all that lies within the Blue line as wild as possible, like a National Park, let’s say, but even better protected. Strict regulations – even a permit system with limited access – guard against overuse. Towns, Hamlets and yes, your seasonal home and all others, are removed.

      I think that’s a certain type of vision, thematically a “monument,” an artifice to protect a natural treasure. I think that’s a beautiful idea in some places. Every time I backpack in the Olympics or Yellowstone I am grateful for our wild monuments and I do not discount their importance to our civilization: how they inspire, teach and remind us. The Adirondacks can and could do all that as well.

      The other vision is thematically an ideal experiment, a proposal to the world that modern human beings can live in relative harmony with wilderness, that vibrant communities can reap the benefits of wild land without exploiting it to death, that we can find and live a balance.

      I may love my monuments but I find this vision much more compelling, even urgent. The kinds of things we have to figure out here in the Adirondacks are small examples of the kinds of things we have to figure out globally if there is to be a long-term future for humanity on Earth. This is the vision for which I advocate.

      Now let’s bring reality back in: our private land, our towns and residents. Not only is the monument vision impossible, but in fact we have a hell of a start on the second vision: the Adirondacks are a remarkable balance already.

      But it is far from perfect. You are right: human stresses are a severe challenge – as they are everywhere, even in our monuments. The economics of this balance are a challenge too – the park’s economic woes are overstated by many in my opinion, hence my previous comparisons to Ohio, but they cannot to be ignored. The economic condition of Hamilton County is greatly tested by its undeveloped character and remoteness.

      Telecommuting is not a silver bullet – there is no such thing. But it is s very smart approach to these problems of stress and balance. Consider seasonal residents such as yourself. You already have a footprint in the park, already stress it. You already have a house or camp, an energy source, a driveway. Therefore if you chose to live here year-round the net impact would be nothing like that of someone building a house in a new development. The net reduction in the use of fossil fuels and roads for driving in and out of the park because you don’t have to would count in favor of our desired balance. Staying put in the park would support and bolster local sustainable food and energy industries. The local effect of your job or business would be clean, save for the energy used to power devices.

      Compare telecommuting to earning a living in the park in other ways: the potential economic benefit is higher and the stress upon the Adirondack ecosystem is lower. That is a driver for the very balance we need to bring the second vision to fruition.

      I’m all about that vision. Give me a robust, livable, charming Tupper, Piseco and Keene, integrally webbed into the most beautiful wild lands in the nation. Let’s lead the world in showing how that can be done.

    • Paul says:

      This will increase pressure on the environment. Development always does. The folks that will come to do this are not going to want to live in town they are going to want to live on the lakes and in other more “fun” locations. Like I said in the other dispatch all three friends of mine who telecommute from what was my home town in the Adirondacks (my summer home now) own motor boats. One of them who already owns a house on the lake is looking for a second home “camp” further up the lake right now. These are very good paying jobs. We cannot pretend here that we are advocating for some low impact alternative to development. Quite the contrary.

  2. Pete Klein says:

    Interesting that Hamilton and Warren counties could be the big winners.
    As your article points out, Hamilton County is a leader in the push for telecommuting jobs. It is also the most wild with the most state owned land and easements.

  3. Kathryn Reinhardt says:

    I have been telecommuting or “split-commuting” for five years from my home in Willsboro to my job in Schenectady, NY. I drive to Schenectady twice a month; stay for 3 days/2 nights and am “the lady who lives in the attic” while there (I rent a room close to my office). The rest of the time, I work from home. My round trip to Schenectady is less mileage than every day to Plattsburgh, where I previously worked. The routine limits my time away from my husband and allows me to do the kind of work that is important to me, and be involved in the local community. This arrangement would not be possible without Internet through Cable Communications of Willsboro. I don’t see the expansion of Internet service in the Park as the beginning of the end of the wilderness here. Most people are more comfortable living near stores and services, theatres and restaurants, bigger school systems, hospitals, etc.–areas with more opportunities. To live year-round in the Adks means you choose to forego shopping and find pleasure in less options, which is not for everyone (thankfully). Whereas small town social life, knowing my neighbors, no traffic, volunteering and living amidst great beauty suits me just fine.

  4. Big Burly says:

    @Pete
    In the 60+ years that I can remember clearly about being in the ADKs, my vision is precisely what you outlined in your response to Ben.
    In the early 90s when my family lived in Vermont, I wrote to the then Sec’y of Commerce and Community Development espousing that VT reach out to the knowledge community around the world to come build their businesses in that state. Some of it has happened, as can be seen in the Mad River Valley, home to world scale entrepreneurs who came to Stowe to ski and stayed to run their business and raise their children.
    It’s not a big stretch for me to foresee that the organized hamlets throughout the Park and its immediate environs will be home to younger entrepreneurs than I who cherish safety for their kids, clean air and clean water, and who will provide services and knowledge to world markets, across really fast access to the internet. It is a premise that supports the future success of ACR in Tupper Lake.
    In my role as a volunteer on my Town’s planning committee, we are developing the local laws needed to protect our waters and viewscapes from what many of us predict will be intensified use pressures. The technology is available and relatively inexpensive to assure that residential waste is properly treated.
    I believe that the really important experiment that has been and is underway in the ADK Park — that humans can live in sustainable harmony with nature — will succeed.

  5. Pete Klein says:

    One thing to add.
    The Internet is a two-way street or highway.
    I shop locally for most things but avoid Glens Falls as much as possible by shopping online for the things I can’t get locally – thus saving time and money.
    I do have a question I hope someone can answer.
    More and more online stores are charging sales tax. This is a good thing if the county share of the sales tax comes back to the county I live in. If so, this would be another reason to shop online for the things I can’t buy locally in the county I live. I really hate spending money in Glens Falls and have Warren County get the sales tax dollars I would prefer Hamilton County to get.

  6. Gary says:

    Hello,

    I am the telework program manager for a local government agency that employees 1000 people. I myself live inside the park.

    Our minimum requirements for teleworking are 3mbps download speed. The employees that had satellite that were getting 1.5 to 2.0 mbps download speeds with no other obtions switched to either the Verizon, Sprint or AT&T aircard which is cheaper then satellite in most cases. They are now meeting the minimum requirements with 3G speeds and are having no issues with uploads (1mbps) and we transfer data in a secure VPN.

    I just wanted to point out that you may not need real fast speeds or a lot of bandwidth in order to be able do your job from home in a secure environment. You may only need to transfer data once or twice a day? Depending on the programs that you use you may be able to re-write the programs so you dont have to transfer alot of data all at once or all day long.

    As far as the NY state Office of Cyber Security, (6 Mbps download and 1.5 Mbps upload) is concerned, if connected through the right type of encrypted virtual private network does the bandwidth/speed really matter?

    • Pete Nelson Pete Nelson says:

      I think you are right to point out that for many people the current available bandwidth would be enough to telecommute. One commenter last week was telecommuting using dial-up.

      However the evolution of technology is unrelenting and the apps of the future will need far more bandwidth than currently available. Fortunately the fiber plant being established in the park will be equal to the task.

  7. Al Pouch says:

    As a graphic designer and photographer living in Indian Lake, doing business here can , at times, be a frustration due to uncertain connections to the outside work. Sheer numbers of users during certain times of the day (regular business hour) seems to slow access and there is always the reliability issue of using the phone line to connect via DSL. Our service seems to go down frequently and the equipment provided is less than optimal. I think a full-on broadband connection is needed ASAP.
    As the former director of the Indian Lake Theater we experienced a host of issues related to connection speeds which will continue to plague the venue when digital conversion takes place. The studios will NOT be able to download films on a DSL line.
    In addition we all need to consider small-scale but highly profitable businesses which can be run from small spaces or homes within the park. I can think of at least three here in town which also support our local economy to everyone’s advantage. Cudos to Bill Murphy and Elmer Gates for diving in and getting to work on this problem/opportunity.

  8. Dave Mason says:

    @Al Pouch –

    Digital distribution of movies will be done by shipping packages of discs, not using the net.

    Some things, like TED Talks and Live at the Met, are done now using the net. But movies will be on discs shipped via Fedex or UPS just like film is today.

  9. Dave Mason says:

    @Gary

    Some jobs do require people to log into systems using VPN (Virtual Private Network) technology, typically for security reasons. Whether you move data to/from your employer once a day or all the time depends on your job. Most people need connections all the time.

    Satellite connections are especially bad for VPN users. The problem is that the satellite is in a geo-stationary orbit, some 22,500 miles high. For your bits to get there and back to earth takes a half-second. This is a speed-of-light problem, no technical fix is possible. Reading a common website takes many back-and-forths so it doesn’t work well for jobs that are highly interactive.

  10. Pete Nelson Pete Nelson says:

    To address the average reader who may find the tech talk a little dizzying, let me comment on security. Security is of course a very important matter but I would not want anyone to shy away from telecommuting or running a business on-line because of fears that the Internet is not secure.

    The facts are these: the public Internet is absolutely not secure, but any public Internet connection can be made as secure as needed without a whole lot of money or effort, without private networks or expensive software.

    Considered from the perspective of a web browser, the dividing line is quite simple: if the web address to which you are connected begins with “http://” or just “www” then whatever you are doing is neither private nor safe. You can drop any notion that because some site you are working on is password protected and/or your PC is password protected you are therefore secure. You’re not secure, not in the least.

    On the other hand if the web address to which you are connected says “https://” (the “s” in that address standing for “secure”) then whatever you are doing is encrypted and that encryption is essentially unbreakable. Not to promote Google, but as an example I use Google email, documents and remote drive tools to work on, store and share all my work. All of that work is encrypted over my very public DSL Internet connection, at no cost to me and with no change in my work style. There is zero chance anyone could intercept any of it.

    The real concern, and the one that takes some thought, discipline and expertise, is whether the devices at either end of the connection are secure. That’s a matter for another column, probably not on the Almanack. But in short 75% of it is on you, the user, to use and maintain strong passwords, protect the privacy of those passwords and never share them. Another 24% is to have a good firewall and virus protection software to reduce the likelihood that malicious software is surreptitiously planted on your device. Some of the free products out there are every bit as effective as the commercial packages.

    The remaining 1% is tricky, tricky stuff. If you want to be super-secure, use devices without any hard drives or other storage devices and store everything online (the “cloud,” if you want a buzzword).

    This is why having experts in the park is so important. Good security is entirely achievable, so whatever you want to do, don’t be afraid to do it. But get advice from a pro. Then connect up and go for it, as secure as you need to be.

  11. Brian G says:

    I am new to the Almanack and am finding this series very interesting. My wife and I recently bought a home in the western end of the Town of AuSable. It will become our permanent home in several years but for now I am finding that the lack of broadband limits the time that I (or my friends and relatives) can spend there. My Internet is via a cell hotspot. I considered satellite but am told that the latency issue means that it won’t effectively work with my office VPN.

    I am not a computer nerd or particularly technically oriented but it seems that this is an issue that we should be able to conquer. Many other advanced industrial nations have far better broadband coverage and speeds than we do. An article that I recently read shows that it CAN be done. Chattanooga, Tenn. has apparently developed a system where most residents and businesses have connectivity at 50 mpbs or higher. I don’t have the money to string my own connection for miles but would be more than willing to pay my fair share to get to, say, 8 mpbs.

    If there is some way I can help bring about such a future for the Adirondacks let me know. This is not about overdevelopment or damaging the environment. It is about developing a healthy, competitive economic atmosphere to support not just flat landers like me who want to move in but to provide a real future for the folks who have been the heart and soul of the Adirondacks for generations.

  12. Ann Melious says:

    Most of Hamilton County’s telecommunications are provided by Frontier. We are excited to have SLIC connecting to Long Lake, but it should be noted that by the end of this January, people within two miles of the main switches in the hamlets of Inlet, Raquette Lake, Indian Lake, Long Lake, Blue Mountain Lake, Speculator, Piseco and Wells will automatically see at least a doubling of speeds if they subscribe to DSL Max — 6 megs. Everyone within the radius will see an increase, unless they stay with dial-up service. Another tier of service may be offered through Frontier that will offer 12 meg speeds. This upgrade is made possible through a partnership with the North Country Regional Economic Development Council, Frontier and Hamilton County. If Phase II development is funded, then an extended middle mile system for the county will be put into place that will extend higher speeds outside of hamlets and create redundancy through switch upgrades in outlying areas and the hanging of fiber optic cable. Newport Telephone, which serves the Town of Morehouse, has applied for funding to extend its fiber optic network through Herkimer County into the Town of Morehouse.