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High-speed Internet in St. Lawrence and Franklin Counties, according to New York state
High-speed Internet in St. Lawrence and Franklin Counties, according to New York state

U.S. House cuts could stop expansion of rural broadband Internet

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The annual Agriculture Appropriations Act passed by the U.S. House last week made sweeping cuts to programs ranging from infant nutrition to genetically engineered salmon.

Thanks to an amendment sponsored by Rep. Bill Owens, it still includes some funding for expansion of broadband Internet to rural areas. The Owens amendment saved $6 million.

That's still a significant cut from the original $22 million and even the reduced allocation is subject to approval by the U.S. Senate.

Either way, many rural residents will be left with the much slower dial-up Internet.

Slic Network Solutions is a Potsdam-based Internet provider. The Company has been using funding from last year's appropriations bill to expand high-speed access along dozens of rural North Country roads. That money isn't affected by the latest cuts.

Slic's President, Phil Wagschal, told Steve Knight that's OK for now, but in the long-term, more government help is vital.

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Slic Network Solutions secured $33 million in government funding last year through a federal stimulus package. With that money they will provide broadband to about 6,000 rural homes in St. Lawrence and Franklin Counties, areas where only 17 percent of homes have high-speed Internet.

"In the recent FCC report on broadband availability, they really brought out that it was a quality of life issue. I think that’s one of the things: contact with friends and relatives, and being able to get on Facebook in a reasonable time frame. But there’s also a lot of economic kind of impact," said Slic President Phil Wagschal.

According to Wagschal, broadband Internet is an invaluable tool for rural businesses: a web presence allows customers to easily find the services they need and it allows businesses to send and receive products from all over the world.

Slic is still working with the money they got last year to reach more people but he says the chances for further expansion are slim without more government funding. "The future of broadband in unserved areas is endangered by these cuts," Wagschal said. "These are areas that we’re going to serve that there really is no justifiable business case to serve these folks. They would probably never get facilities based broadband service in these locations."

So even though Slic is expanding broadband, many people in the North Country and across the country will be left with dial-up. Wagschal said he blames the state’s inaccurate maps of broadband coverage, saying that the maps show access where there isn’t any. 

"I can look at the map and say I know for a fact that this area is unserved," Wagschal said."Places like Owls Head in Franklin County does not have service, yet on the map from the state of New York, it appears that they do."

Wagschal said lawmakers who voted to cut the funding underestimate the need and the importance of high-speed Internet in rural areas. "Being against broadband deployment is like being against motherhood and apple pie," he said.

Slic Network Solutions is currently working in the town of Dickinson in Franklin County. Wagschal said he hopes to turn on service for those customers early next month. It is also running cable in the Knapps Station area, to be operational in September.

For North Country Public Radio, I'm Steve Knight


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