BINGHAMTON, N.Y.—On June 28, local government officials, industry experts and leaders in broadband convened in Binghamton for the Upstate Rural Broadband Conference organized by the Southern Tier 8 Regional Board.

Excitement and promise brim with the impending arrival of serious federal funds to address broadband access and affordability — longstanding issues that the COVID-19 pandemic shined a light on. But $65 billion from Washington, which is to be divided among the states, is poised to tip the scales and bring broadband internet to where companies have not been interested to go.

There are a lot of layers and facets to thinking about the digital divide that separates communities that do and do not have the high-speed internet service. Some of those issues have been covered in previous reporting from The Ithaca Voice, but to lend a conversational tone and added perspective to the topic Nick Helmholdt, Tompkins County’s Principal Planner and Tourism Program Director, and Dryden Town Supervisor Jason Leifer spoke with this reporter over a video call to talk about their thoughts on the Upstate Broadband Conference and the the work ahead of them. Dryden is pursuing a municipal broadband project and the county government will be attempting to close the gaps that exist in broadband access in Tompkins.

That conversation is available as an MP3 and a transcription below. The transcription likely has some errors in it, as AI software was relied on to generate it, but it has been proof-read for major issues. This conversation took place on June 30, 2022.

https://ithacavoice.s3.amazonaws.com/ithacavoice/wp-content/uploads/2022/07/06302022_Nick-and-Jason-RT_edited-and-mixed.mp3

Jimmy Jordan  00:00

So access to broadband has been an issue that’s been on the mind of Tompkins County residents in rural communities for many years. But obviously, as we have said, so many times the COVID-19 pandemic brought the issue to the nation’s attention, and the digital divide was taken much more seriously. So that was a big topic at the conference. 

Jimmy Jordan  00:23

But before we dive into that, I was thinking maybe we could talk about ConnectALL initiative and these new maps that we now have…this resource. You know, the FCC maps, that was the information people had in order to judge where gaps in broadband access where before, and those were grossly inaccurate. Now we have these new maps from New York State, and they’re better and they’re interactive, and individuals can update them. Where are your reactions to this new product and, you know, how are they going to be of help to the work that each of you are doing?

Jason Leifer  00:55

The maps, they’re only relevant for when we apply for grants, because we’re planning on building out and overbuilding everyone is already in Dryden. So we’re not we’re not looking to do what most public projects do, which is fill in gaps. We want to compete in the private sector. I mean, really, like, you know, I mean, we really intend to compete against Spectrum Point Broadband and anybody else who is in Dryden now, or is even thinking about it in the future. Doesn’t matter what technology they’re using. 

Jason Leifer  01:29

So for us, the map really only is relevant when we apply for grants. And then that’s based on most usually the speeds that are available, not just the coverage, and then there’s different, there’s different types of grants you go for, based on, we were looking in every pot we can, but even those ones are there — those are probably the biggest ones would get anyhow, those ones are more focused on bringing costs down rather than building out new service that we did just apply for as community development block grant for one area based on an income survey we do for our water projects. So it’s, you know, not a lot of money if we get it. But, you know, for us, every dollar helps to lower the cost. In short, basically the cost that we put out, we intend to reduce them once the system is paid off.

Jimmy Jordan  02:23

Okay, I’ve got a follow up that I think will be a little more relevant to your situation and driving then. But before I do that, why don’t we just hear from Nick.

Nick Helmholdt  02:31

I think it’s it’s an important step forward to understanding what’s happening within, you know, at a more granular level. That said, no map is perfect. And as soon as the map is published, it’s out of date. So, we will continue to work with our folks at the state to make sure that things are accurate on there, as we find any discrepancies. Unlike Dryden, I think the difference with the county’s approach is we’re really looking at those areas that are unserved and underserved, and trying to identify solutions to expand out high-speed broadband to those locations. And so this map is really an essential part of that. We are — it’s hard for me to say much more about it. At this point, we’ve requested the raw data from the state so that we can actually look at it like in our mapping software, in a GIS, and have not yet received that. 

Nick Helmholdt  03:31

So we have just the same thing that everybody else has. We would like to have that in a different format so that we can look at it more comprehensively at the whole county level instead of looking at it one address at a time. Because the maps are going to be linked to funding as Jason mentioned, that’s going to be a major driver for what gets built out in the next few years, because if the state is using these as the basis for making decisions, then we need to make sure that those are being made accurately. So yeah. I’m excited to see that this project has, you know, moving forward and we’ll be definitely monitoring this as closely because we want to pursue those funding options that the state is going to be making available.

Jimmy Jordan  04:17

Jason, this is more relevant to Dryden. But there was a mentality at the conference yesterday that broadband needs to be treated like a utility. It’s used in the same way that water and sewer are used by everybody there — it’s just as essential in the modern economy. And I think that speaks to what Dryden is trying to do making a municipal broadband project. Could you explain a little more at length, what your core ideas and hopes are with creating this municipal project and competing with large private ISPs are?

Jason Liefer 04:50

Yes, so basically, the reason why we are going this route is because we first attempted with along with a lot of the towns in the county — attempted to expand access by getting Charter, and even before them when they were in Time Warner, to build out the cable network, because that’s how people would get internet. Because we have like I’m looking at the map for my house right now. It says I have Verizon fiber, which I don’t. So this is wrong.

Jason Liefer 05:19

It says I can get that which is complete nonsense. Clarity Connect’s fixed wireless I can’t get because we have trees. So like even this basic data for why my house is wrong. But even with that, most of the people who we talked to, and this has been since I’ve been on the board since 2008 — even if they even if you didn’t provide a better service than, you know, Time Warner Charter or whatever they’re gonna be called in the future, they so dislike the way they’re treated. Not just the pricing, but the customer service. In general, when there’s an outage or the unreliability of the system, because it’s just, it’s old, I mean, their infrastructure is simply old. And it rains you might not have service that happens in my house. 

Jason Leifer  06:02

So people, even we could charge the same give the same speeds, they flip to the town project right now. And that’s why we think that it’s not just about filling in gaps, but it’s about providing a modern system that can actually handle what people do on a daily basis. The problem I have, I’m an attorney, and to do criminal defense, we now get, gigabytes and gigabytes worth of discovery so much that I can’t keep them on my laptop for every case. So I have to keep using my cloud storage. The download speed isn’t the problem when I’m at home. The problem is when I try to move them off my laptop, because I can’t directly shift them over to my cloud server. So they have to upload. So I can get a download speed of 250 gigabytes or whatever, which is fine. That’s plenty for most everything I need to do. But the upload is maybe on a good day, like 18. 

Jason Leifer  07:00

So it takes hours, I leave my computer go on all night just to get all that data up to my server. And that makes it impossible. Like if I were to try and do this at work, luckily, I use Dropbox. And luckily, you can interrupt the uploads and it won’t harm the file. But if you’re trying to do any type of technical work like an architect, or somebody is using TIFF files and terabytes of data, you can’t do it. Unless you have your own dedicated T1 line which you’re not going to have as a homeowner. You might have it as a business. But even getting that is a special case. And it’s expensive. So a small business, you know, somebody who’s a solo architect or something is not going to spend that money on a T1 line. 

Jason Leifer  07:44

We don’t have, unlike the City of Ithaca, we don’t have an incubator building, which might have better internet access. But you know, in this day and age, you shouldn’t have to, and when especially when it’s countries that are less overall well developed than the US, they have better internet service to me, it’s embarrassing that we’re still probably 20 years behind like, honestly like South Korea, for instance. It’s embarrassing that we’re behind them so much. And we pay more for it too by the way, which is the most ridiculous thing. 

Jason Leifer  08:15

And that’s the other part of this too. So not only are you filling in and then competing and updating, giving an update network, you’re also finally getting compensated like real competition to the big guys. The only way to drive down the cost in this environment is to have something that’s worth flipping over to. 

Jason Leifer  08:55

Just because the city is covered in theory everywhere, it doesn’t mean that the service is even good or affordable for a lot of the people here. And then this goes into the other problem. At that conference, there was a slide showing the subsidies you give to providers for giving a low cost internet service. If we spent — like if Tompkins County just had that $3.7 million that supposedly left on the table per year to build out, just give that to somebody to give that to a municipality to build out a system or give it to the county to do the gap filling. What you build, you…it’ll be there for 50 to 100 years, and you’ll be able to offer that $30 price to these people in perpetuity. 

Jason Leifer  09:41

So you’re not gonna have to have anyone apply for grants and whatever else ever again, because it goes with the Dryden system, when we’re all paid off, we’re going to be able to drive the price down to about 30 bucks a month for everybody. And that’s, you know, a couple of years from now even after inflation’s kicked prices up.

Jimmy Jordan  09:57

Now this is a bit of a sidestep but I think it’s connected to a lot of what you’re talking about. Among the panelists, and at the conference on Tuesday, there was a pretty palatable, dissatisfaction with the ability of, you know, federal, state and private spheres to solve the issue of broadband access and affordability in full. And there was an emphasis that was consistently placed on local communities having to play a big part leading in broadband coming to their area or, you know, prices dropping. Did the sentiments make sense to the both of you? And where do you think they stem from?

Nick Helmholdt  10:37

Yeah, that makes sense. To me. I think, I think there was one line, one speaker, who said something like basically: ‘The financial model doesn’t work for Internet carriers to expand to these rural locations.’ And that’s the conundrum we’ve run against in our county and numerous other communities throughout upstate New York, and really all over the country. 

Nick Helmholdt  11:00

Basically, we’ve relied on the private sector to deliver this service, they have delivered it to, if you believe the numbers, between 90 and 95% of households, and the state, and they are basically not interested in the balance, certainly not at the rate of return that is currently available which is where local communities stepping up and trying to solve this problem and working on this and working with those carriers working with every available option we have is where we’re at basically. You know, broadband is effectively, with a few exceptions, unregulated right now. It’s not like electricity, it’s not like water and sewer in those regards. It is privately provisioned and then privately paid for, with the exception of a few municipal search systems out there. 

Nick Helmholdt  11:54

So it’s…it’s a unique problem. We’ve recognized, as you mentioned, that this is no longer something that we should expect to be just uneven. With people working from home, people doing school from home, telemedicine, so many different reasons that people need to have high speed, reliable and affordable internet. We are trying to figure out how we can make that available for every household in our, in our community. So yeah, I think it absolutely rings true that that sentiment that if you just wait for the private sector, you wait for the federal government to do something, it’s not going to happen. 

Jason Leifer  12:35

Yeah, I think the thing that they tend to do, too, is, at least federal government and New York state, is they just throw money at the private sector. But then the thing is that these companies tend to just use the money, they get to improve the service for people who already have it. But the reason why we’re doing it, the way we are in Dryden too is that we don’t really want to subsidize these businesses anymore. 

Jason Leifer  13:03

Because what happens is, as you give them money, even if they do build-out, you’re actually paying for their assets. And because of the way the industry works with so many like consolidations and buyouts of the smaller companies by the bigger ones, all you’re doing is giving them a way to make themselves more attractive for someone to come in and just take them over. And maybe they’ll offer the same kind of service. But I’ve rarely seen anything like pricing promises or anything even kept by the people by the companies that get public money. Usually, they just come in and say, ‘Well, you know, we’ll build here if you give us the money to do it. But by the way, we’re not going to promise to keep our price a certain level for a certain amount of time.’ 

Jason Leifer  13:52

And then they get to put it on to the point where they can do their year-end financial reports, they get to say their assets increase by this much because the fibers with this and then they can project out and that’s all you’re doing. You’re really just subsidizing an industry where it can be done by a municipality, and not by all of them but at least ones that are the size of Dryden, they can do it. Because we have staff and we have experience with big capital projects, a town like Enfield would probably have problems. They don’t have the staff to manage it but the Town of Ithaca could definitely do this, the Town of Lansing probably could. You know, the county definitely could, Yates County is doing it. Tompkins could definitely do it. Madison County is doing a variation of what we’re doing. 

Jason Leifer  14:41

You just have to have people around who can manage it once it’s built and you don’t even have to manage it on your own right away either. You can contract a lot of that out. But then all the benefits still stay with the municipality and that sort of allows you to eventually lower the prices anyhow. Like some municipalities would need help. And that’s where like we like…like, for instance, if Caroline wanted to do this, and they want to just plug in our system, we’d be able to manage it. But the way state law is they’d have to pay for their part of it. The town system can’t — unlike a private company, we can’t just cross municipal lines and benefit another municipality. 

Jason Leifer  15:18

We’re having, as far as the financing side, an issue with our bond counsel saying that we can’t even do that within the villages within the town, even though village residents vote in town elections and pay town property tax. And I think their objection would apply if it’s Dryden bonding to put stuff in Caroline. But we’re talking about villages within a town. It’s a different story, I think, legally, but I have to go a few rounds with my bond counsel on this one, just like I did when it came to the fracking argument, my town lawyer. But that’s the biggest, I think, hurdle when it comes to other towns, because there are small towns that need the service it’s just, again, they don’t have the staff to do it, because it is a much more intensive customer service activity that even water or sewer.

Jimmy Jordan  16:06

So this connects nicely into the next question. As it was well-advertised at the conference, and the news had already shared with us many months prior, $65 billion are coming from the federal government. They’re going to be divided among the states, and that money is going to be distributed in some fashion to address broadband gaps and inadequate service. And so I am wondering, in both of your perspectives, what the most effective use of money like this for broadband would be?

Nick Helmholdt  16:42

Yeah, it’s a hard question, because there are so many different situations across the state and around the country and different where — what the needs are and how to address them. There are unique circumstances out there that were something like a middle-mile investment could make a lot of sense. I think a lot of what this money is going to be spent on is incremental last-mile additions to existing networks. And that’s probably where the bulk of it’s gonna end up going. I don’t think you’re gonna see a lot of like, so-called transformative or innovative, things that come out. I think this is really meant to get those places where you don’t have adequate or any wireline connection to the internet, you know, beyond DSL, which, I mean, that’s just a joke. I think it’ll be interesting to see how it all shakes out.

Jason Leifer 17:37

And I think it should primarily go towards infrastructure, not subsidizing the cost. I would hope that it would go to, like, the planning part of it that they’re talking about, for the first round of money that they’re going to give out—I think the planning part really should be more about the network construction, because you don’t need beyond maybe doing a survey in a particular community about what we’re interested in, find out what the potential takeaway would be, you really need to build the new networks. So the state could even take a different approach, instead of just offering money to municipalities, you could probably buy up fiber, for instance, because it’s really the fiber that people are going to install. There’s different configurations of it. But say New York gets a billion dollars, if you leverage even half of that, to actually buy up fiber, or so it’s available for projects to just draw upon. The way that city down in Texas was able to stockpile fiber because they used all their ARPA funding for it. That’s how you get a project done as fast as they’re getting it done. Because if you spend three years planning this stuff, you’re gonna have another case of ‘Okay, so the government said they’re gonna do this and didn’t do anything.’ 

Jason Leifer 18:55

Because to me, the real risk is that people spend their time talking about planning. And then they have another conference just like they did the other day, 15 years from now still talking about solving the problem, because the reality is back in 1996, when they started doing these things, if you were to spend some money on actually rolling, not just middle-mile fiber out, but fiber down roads, in rural America, you’d have this problem solved. And there’s towns like in Appalachia that did this on their own without any of these programs to think you can read there was a story in the Atlantic or New York Times Magazine a couple of years ago, about a town in, I think West Virginia, maybe it’s…well it’s in Appalachia, but the articles are easy to find. But nobody, no provider would go there even with money because they didn’t have enough people and they just decided to do it on their own. And now they have Gigabit Ethernet in a podunk town in the middle of Appalachia. 

Jason Leifer  19:50

And that’s the thing, it’s because they just chose to actually do it instead of talking about it incessantly. And there’s a lot of people who get involved in these different regional economic councils if this isn’t going to be popular, but I think some of this is that if they solve the problem that they are trying to solve, they wouldn’t have a job. I mean, really, the goal of this whole massive build-out should be that it never needs to be talked about again. Like that conference should say our goals, and not have another one of these in 10 years. That’s it. 

Jason Leifer  20:21

Like if we need them in 10 years, we failed. And New York is gonna get enough money. Like I figured off the cuff. If New York set aside a billion dollars, even if it was just like 0% loans for communities, you could solve this problem, because the projects pay for themselves. No one’s saying we want free internet, they just want something that works and is affordable.

So you don’t need to just…you don’t need to do this by grants; low interest, or no interest loans are enough. And if the state’s doing it, I think you also get around that problem. You have a bond counsel, like that I have to deal with right now. Because we don’t have those programs available. You know, the planning part, really, to me is more about where you are going to run your lines. And as far as the system are you going to want to compete directly with existing providers or not, that’s the only choice. If you’re gonna decide to compete with existing providers, you don’t need maps, you just need fiber. And you need someone who can plan where you can put your nodes, and the maps that you do generate are mostly to find out who owns what piece of property where you want to put your equipment, that’s about it, and then rights of way. So you can attach the poles or go in and around or whatever. That’s what your maps are for. They’re not to figure out who’s got coverage or not, it’s to actually construct the network.

Jimmy Jordan  21:33

I mean, that’s everything I had written down to ask. And so I’m just wondering if there’s anything that you, like, didn’t hear get brought up that maybe is nagging at the back of your head?

Jason Leifer 21:45

At the conference, I was gonna specifically ask about why they weren’t talking about the municipal model more for that second panel, but there wasn’t time. But I think any of the panels could have used an actual state legislator from one of the committees that actually handles telecommunications to explain something about the broadband office, because it is a pretty broad mandate. 

Jason Leifer  22:26

But then we could also ask them questions about well, what about the financing? Because when it’s different for private than public networks. You know, do you plan to address because these issues I talked about, how to know how communities can work together more easily than under the current scheme of things? Are they speaking to the comptroller’s office, for instance, about their views on how this has to work within municipal budgets. And because it seems like from the way things went spraying in the legislature, not everyone was talking to one another about how this is all gonna work. Like everyone wants to do something. But had they really focused a bit more, many of these questions could have been answered in this first round of legislation. 

Jason Leifer  23:19

Because like the one thing that we lucked out on is that in the budget, there was actually direct affirmation that municipal governments can own and operate a broadband system, because I think if they had not put that in the law that they passed. Once the broadband office took over, even though it says it wants to support municipal broadband, the state steps into that field of regulation. Then what we’re doing in Dryden would’ve had to stop immediately, because the state stepped into that field. We were operating under the assumption that we could do it because there was no state law prohibiting it. There was nothing saying, directly, you can do it, but we were operating under the Town Law, health, safety, welfare, and, you know, plenty of justification after COVID, but we actually started our project before COVID. That’s another distinction and so many people say, ‘Well, COVID taught us this.’ I’ve been dealing with this since 2008. This has been around a while before COVID. All the inequities existed before COVID. COVID just made it bare that nothing had been done for 20 years. 

Jason Leifer  24:27

You know, but the state really they if they would have focused a little bit more instead of fighting with the legislators, fighting about stuff like they normally do, this thing could have been wrapped up a lot more tightly. But now that we have this brought down office now that hopefully it’s going to work out now, hopefully they get it together quicker than the marijuana regulation and taxation act you can have as a cannabis management offices because they’re a mess. So I’m hoping the broadband folks are a little bit more apt to get their act together. Because this is something that everybody wants, whereas on the cannabis side, not everybody wants that.

Nick Helmholdt  25:00

Yeah, that’s a good point. It’s not the end that everybody wants us. I think that the planning for this isn’t like, ‘Do you want broadband?’ Everybody really wants it. They want it to be cheap, and they want to be fast, reliable. Like, that’s not like, asking people that question over and over is not instructive. I think the where I wish we would have gotten into a little more depth in the conference, and and it’s no fault of the organizers is exactly, you know, the these topics of what is the state doing? And what does it what are the plans? There’s been some, you know, you know, change it the leadership of the state broadband office, I think there’s still just some things to be determined there. 

Nick Helmholdt  25:34

Yeah, I was hoping to learn some things like what are your average estimates of cost per person served through this program, what are you looking to achieve in that, or not person, but household served. Some details like that, I think, would have been really helpful to get our arms around. What should we expect in terms of state support? And what will we have to, you know, come up with locally or through debt, to backup the rest? So there’s still more to come on this topic. And we’ll be watching closely as more detail comes out about the ConnectAll program.

Jason Leifer 26:07

That part of it, but when someone says communities have skin in the game, and there’s some communities that will never be able to scale up, to have the skin that’s required for some of these grants.

Nick Helmholdt  26:17

No, exactly, and I wonder if that potential hardship is going to be factored into the decision-making that they’re going to make on how to award funds. And I have no idea.

Jimmy Jordan  26:28

One thing that was brought up a number of times was the way that ISPs are probably going to make a lot of sense for certain communities to partner with, just because they’re going to be able to take care of all that planning and infrastructure work that a town might not be able to, although it was also laid out as option that had been explored previously, that just didn’t pan out very well. An ISP just didn’t deliver on a promise. I don’t remember specific examples being brought up. But that was kind of the word of the wise that I remember being shared. So I think that is a really interesting point. How are smaller towns that don’t have the staff or know how or whatever going to participate in ConnectALL’s initiatives or benefit from them?

Nick Helmholdt  27:16

Essentially, money. I mean, it’s…I expect some matching funds will be required, this won’t be 100% covered, you’re gonna have to probably come up with some portion of the cost.

Jason Leifer 27:27

You tend to have to, like our ARC rate is 50%.

Nick Helmholdt  27:34

Even transportation grants are the at accomplish 20%. And those are pretty generous.

Jason Leifer 27:39

The most generous program we had was Bridge New York, which is local match is 5%. Usually, it’s yeah, like Nick said, 20%. And for some communities, and never that they can’t even pull that right because of the tax base.

Nick Helmholdt  27:55

And that’s probably going to line up pretty neatly with the communities that have the largest number of homes that are unserved, unfortunately. Because when the ISPs are looking at where to expand their territories, they’re looking at who can afford to pay 50 to 100 bucks a month for either bundled service or standalone internet. And so those economic hardship problems cut both at the availability of broadband and the ability to pay for the expansions. So it’s gonna be interesting. I think there’s a lot to come here.

Jimmy Jordan

Jimmy Jordan is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at jjordan@ithacavoice.com Connect with him on Twitter @jmmy_jrdn