Berne tries to bridge a digital divide – The Altamont Enterprise

BERNE — Cars are parked alongside the town’s library even when the building is closed and its parking lot isn’t full. Its Wi-Fi signal is strongest there.

People come to the rural hamlet, with their laptops and smartphones, from the sparser stretches of the town, which has some of its 2,800 residents scattered among steep hills, where the access to high-speed Internet is limited, prohibitive, or non-existent.

The town board and a resident say that, over time, most of those homeowners can be offered a connection at a reasonable price. The board voted unanimously at its last meeting to spend $4,000 from a contingency fund in order to match the money needed for 21 residents who are expected to pay Time Warner, a cable provider, to lay coaxial cable along Woodstock Road. With that would come a faster exchange of information to and from their computers, and the ability to keep up with the data demands of the Internet that are becoming as expected as a cellphone number.

Following the vote on Sept. 10, the crowd applauded for Kim Young, who over 10 years notified the town’s supervisor, Kevin Crosier, of grant opportunities and rallied her neighbors near and on Woodstock Road to join in the project and lower the cost of extending cable.

Young met Crosier — who lives a few miles away from her and is a cable customer — when she was using her laptop in the parking lot outside of his office in the hamlet. After Saturday trips to the transfer station, she used the town’s Wi-Fi on her laptop in the library when it occupied a small room in Town Hall. When the library was closed, she sat close enough to the building to pick up a signal.

Young and Crosier spoke at the September meeting of their idea to use the franchise fees that Time Warner pays to Berne as a sort of rotating fund. The cable company has connected areas in the town with a density of 12 or more homes per mile of cable, Crosier said. For homes farther apart, a resident needs to knock on neighbors’ doors, like Young did, and then the town can use its franchise money to pay for half of the cost. The development of such a project of is sometimes referred to as a “design build.”

As more subscribers are added to Time Warner, the fee grows, and so does the town’s ability to help fund the cost of laying cable. That way, the town’s subsidy is tied to usage, not property.

Crosier says the plan will take time and won’t get to every single home. In order to avoid using the current $15,000 that the franchise fee brings to the town every year, he proposed increasing the fee from 3 to the maximum 5 percent of the money coming from Berne subscribers, but he said on Wednesday that hadn’t yet been approved by the state’s Public Service Commission.

The formal agreement between Berne and Time Warner expired in 2003, because the company wanted to increase the density requirement from 12 to 20 homes per mile of cable, said Crosier.

Young, 51, moved to Berne that same year. She and her husband, Michael, had lived in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, but found living there a financial strain. Having to organize and petition for broadband access was new for her, as cable in Cape Cod was put in by Comcast, a company that is now proposing to merge with Time Warner Inc.

“I see it as, we don’t want the cities, we don’t want the noise and the traffic. We still like to be able to do our banking,” said Young of living in Berne. Referring to a service where customers can order groceries online, Young said, “I find that Price Chopper Shops 4U is the best technology advancement of the Internet, ever.”

Working at a credit union in Colonie, Young commutes 50 minutes to work each way. Her husband works for the United States Postal Service in Voorheesville. She considers the limited access to high-speed Internet in rural areas an economic disadvantage, especially for young people who will need familiarity with it in college and careers elsewhere.

Young has a dial-up connection at home, which uses her telephone line. She can’t watch videos or even load some websites. As an amateur paper artist, she makes cards and other creations, called “altered paper art.” She hopes that someday she would be able to create her own tutorials in video form and upload them on the blogs she reads. For now, she watches others’ videos only by using the receptionist’s computer at work, e-mailing the downloaded file to herself, and downloading it on her iPad to watch later.

Her husband is a voice talent. “Now, everything is done by your own website,” Young said of how his field has changed. “They shoot the script to you, you record it at home, you upload the mp3 — well, you can’t do that on dial-up.”

According to the 2012-13 annual report from the New York State Broadband Program Office, the Capital Region has a high percentage, 16 percent, of residents without broadband access. All regions in the state but the rural North Country have lower percentages.

The main underserved areas in Albany County include about half of the town of Berne and most of Rensselaerville and Westerlo, the report shows.

For prospective home buyers in the rural Hilltowns, questions about Internet access are among the first they ask, said Jennifer Eitleman, a real estate saleswoman for Prudential Manor Homes.

“I think most people just assume it’s there,” she said. Brian Michaud, a real estate salesperson with C.M. Fox Real Estate, said not having high-speed access could mean additional time before a property is sold.

Seventy percent of American adults had access to high-speed Internet in 2013, according to Pew Internet and American Life Project surveys from 2000 to 2013; that is a relatively stagnant level from 2010, when 66 percent had access. According to Pew, high-speed Internet adoption is strongly correlated with age, education, and household income. Forty-three percent of adults who have not completed high school use the Internet; compared to 71 percent of those with high-school diplomas and 94 percent of college graduates.

Cable isn’t the only form of delivering the Internet service to people’s homes, but each has drawbacks and cable is the most widely used in the Capital Region and considered a good balance of speed, reliability, and cost. Satellite transmission, wireless systems, and “white spaces,” which uses pieces of the television spectrum and can travel through obstacles, are used in rural areas like the Hilltowns for high-speed access.

“There was a feeling in the beginning that somehow a municipality would either get grants or money,” Councilman Joseph Golden said during the Sept. 10 board meeting. “You’d be able to wave the magic wand and cable would get stretched everywhere and it would cost $4 a month. That’s not going to happen.”

The government money that has supported expanding broadband access has been focused on filling notable gaps, like those in New York City, and bringing access to high-need areas. When Crosier asked why the town was denied a grant from the state for extending cable lines, he said, it was because many rural communities have no access.

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