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Ron Flannery connects a Dickinson Center camp. Photo: Sarah Harris
Ron Flannery connects a Dickinson Center camp. Photo: Sarah Harris

Local internet provider connects the North Country

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The Internet is a big part of 21st century life - people use it get news, watch movies, apply for jobs, and pay bills. But the North Country lags behind the rest of New York state in connectivity. 20 percent of people in the region don't have fast, reliable internet connections. That's compared to just 5% of people state-wide.

SLIC, a local internet provider that grew out of Nicholville Telephone Company, is trying to change that.

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Reported by

Sarah Harris
Reporter and Producer

Ron Flannery, up in the air. Photo: Sarah Harris.
Ron Flannery, up in the air. Photo: Sarah Harris.
I’m standing on a dirt road in Dickenson Center, a small Franklin County town southeast of Malone.

My feet are planted firmly on the ground – but Ron Flannery, a lineman with SLIC, is rising up in the air in the bucket of a telephone truck.

“You can run it from the joystick up here or you can run it from the controls down there,” Ron yells down.  

He’s an upbeat, burly guy with a beard. His job is to attach fiber-optic cables to telephone poles and run them to people’s houses.

“So now I’ll set our P- clamp in, put our drop inside the clamp, put it on our j-hook, and then we’ll tap the end of the clamp and make sure it’s seeded,” Ron explains. “And the installers will tie the the coil into the case, and that’ll put light onto the fiber feed in the house.”

It’s hard, physical work – and it’s how SLIC, a small internet provider, has installed thousands of miles of fiber in the North Country.

"We go all the way from Ogdensburg to Massena to Malone," explains CEO Mark Dzwonczyk, "And we’re heading towards Lyon Mountain, to the south we’re going to be in Long Lake, we’re about half way, we’re in Tupper now. And next summer after that we’ll be in Schroon Lake.

CEO Mark Dzwonczyk and President Phil Wagschal. Photo: Sarah Harris
CEO Mark Dzwonczyk and President Phil Wagschal. Photo: Sarah Harris
Mark explains that over the past few years, SLIC has undergone a huge transformation.

In 2010, they got $33 million in federal stimulus money to bring high speed internet to the North Country.

That’s where Mark came in. He managed start-ups in Silicon Valley and spent his summers in the Adirondacks. SLIC hired him to help the company grow.

"In the sense that we were going to be growing fast, we had a market, we had a mission, but we didn’t have a lot of cash. And so, in that sense it was a lot like a silicon valley start – up: let’s get the culture together so we can all work together. Do this with constrained cash conditions, but know we’re on a mission of doing important work."

That work meant sending people like Ron out into the field to actually build fiberoptic infrastructure. It meant doubling the size of their staff. And it meant signing up tons of new customers – about 40 a week for the past two years.

Nicole Adner works at St. Lawrence University and lives 2 miles outside of Norwood. Before SLIC offered her service in 2011, she was using dial up.

"Well first you’d plug in the obnoxiously long phone cord so you don't trip over it all the time. Hit connect walk away. Come back 2-5 mintues later, go to whatever website you’re looking for, walk away. Give it time to load – usually between 5 and 10 minutes depending on what time of day it is.

­­So Nicole was really happy to find out that SLIC would bring service to her road. She says now, she does pretty much everything online – including going to school.

Actually a month after I got SLIC internet I started working on my graduate degree online. So I don’t know if I would have done that if we still had dial-up or not.

Now, SLIC’s expanding far beyond the St. Lawrence Valley, far into the Adirondacks.   

And they’ve started providing a cable TV service, too.

The thing is, even though SLIC’s growing like crazy, it will be a long time before everyone can get a good internet connection.

Dave Salway works for the New York State Broadband Office.

"When we look at the North Country we see one of the lowest levels of service in terms of people the number of people who are served, primarily because of the housing density and the terrain that exist up there. About 20 % of North Country residents do not have access, which breaks down to about 87,0000 people or 57,000 households," Salway said. 

Phil Wagschal, president of SLIC, knows the difficulty first hand. It’s tough to install fiber when there are mountains, lakes, and woods in the way.  

"One of the biggest challenges is getting off our main network down the Route 3 corridor in Star Lake. There are some areas down through there where the fiber runs way off the road through the woods." 

The terms of the grant mandate that SLIC reach rural, underserved customers. But not every last mile qualifies. 

"It’s a real challenge," says Wagschal, "because the network has to stop somewhere. As you build out, it would be my desire to serve everybody."

SLIC says they’re going to keep figuring out ways to bring internet to the North Country. And for Phil Wagschal, it’s about more than fiberoptic cables, connection speeds and finances.  

"The reason I do this is because I believe there’s the potential that there may be a kid in Brandon who maybe he has the cure for cancer somewhere in his brain. And it won’t unlock unless he has access to information. Unless something sparks that. And if you don’t have broadband, if you don’t have the internet, if you don’t have that access to information, you can’t enable those things the same way. And I think broadband really lifts these communities."

The North Country may not be totally connected yet. But it’s starting: road by road and town by town. 

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