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Will the North Country's broadband infrastructure be ready for the next generation of businesses?
Will the North Country's broadband infrastructure be ready for the next generation of businesses?

Funds scarce for broadband superhighway

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Across the North Country, economic development leaders say broadband internet access is one key to building more jobs and new prosperity.

But the infrastructure for broadband is expensive, often requiring miles of expensive fiber-optic cable.

Groups across the region have been asking for help from the Federal government to help offset the cost.

As Brian Mann reports, they met with mixed success - with some areas still struggling to find funding.

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

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Last year, Clarkson University professor Tony Collins laid out the argument for bringing a new generation of businesses to the North Country using the internet. 

“If you can imagine connecting your business activity, it wouldn’t matter whether it was in Albany or Athens,” he said.

“You could be sitting on your front porch looking out over an Adirondack lake.  This we believe is a solution that has very low impact on the environment, that would build on existing business, and expand the population of the Park.”

Clarkson’s Adirondack Initiative for Wired Work set a goal of attracting 2000 new internet-related jobs and telecommuters to the region over the next decade.

But there’s a consensus that in many parts of the North Country, we still lack the infrastructure to attract those jobs. 

Howard Lowe is head of a project called CBN Connect, based in Plattsburgh.

“The need for affordable, ubiquitous broadband has resonated at all levels in all six counties that CBN was proposing to serve,” he said.

Over the last couple of years, the holy grail of broadband funding was the Federal stimulus program. 

The Akewsasne Mohawk reservation won more than 10 million dollars in funding last month designed to drastically improve connectivity in that part of northern Franklin and St. Lawrence Counties.

“You’re going to be able to spur job creation, small business start-ups and existing businesses are going to be able to access resources through high speed communications that are going to allow them to improve their operations,” said Jamie Bay, assistant executive director for tribal administration with the St. Regis Mohawk tribe. 

He’s convinced that the new broadband infrastructure paid for the Federal government will improve everything from local schools to medical care.

“Community members [currently] have to drive themselves long distances to go to hospitals throughout the region,” he said

But not everyone scored big through the stimulus bill. 

“We asked the agency why our application wasn’t successful and they tell us feedback is not available,” said CBN Connect’s Howard Lowe.

CBN had been asking for $25 million.  Without that money, Lowe says he’s not sure how this infrastructure will be built for remote areas of the Adirondacks and Champlain Valley.

“The Federal government has been the best source for this kind of thing,” he said.  “But it may be that we’ll want to partner with other telecomm providers that are doing business in the area.”

Lowe says there’s no evidence that the next Congress will provide a big new pot of money for another round of broadband funding.

But smaller grants from Federal agencies might be available.

“There is quite a bit of give and take between Democrats and Republicans about the effectiveness of the stimulus that’s been out there so far,” he said.

“It’s certainly a question whether there would be support for more stimulus funds.”

Efforts to improve the region’s broadband capacity will continue.  Jamie Bay says Federal funding will help improve computer literacy on the Akwesasne Reservation. 

And later this month, Clarkson University will open a satellite office in Saranac Lake designed to encourage telecommuting and computer based start-ups in the Park.

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