Internet on demand? Lack of broadband seen to hurt Washington County growth

B onnie Hawley’s livelihood depends on the Internet.

Hawley owns and operates a florist shop in Rutland, Vt. She has a handsome website where customers can view and order her products – an absolute necessity in the floral arrangement industry – she maintains a Facebook page where she markets her business, and the shop itself has five terminals where sales associates can swipe client’s credit cards.

“We use the Internet every day. It’s become very, very necessary. In this day and age, daily life absolutely depends on it (Internet),” Hawley said.

And while Hawley would prefer to accomplish many of her work tasks from the comfort of her lower Hampton home, where she can sit and look at the Green Mountains off in the distance, she cannot because high-speed Internet service is sporadic at best and nonexistent at its worse.

“I try to do a lot of work from home if I can get through the Internet to my server. But it can be problematic and the Internet isn’t always reliable,” Hawley said.

When she can’t connect, she has to make the half-hour drive to Rutland.

Unfortunately, Hawley’s story is by no means unique. The lack of broadband infrastructure is a problem throughout northern Washington County.

In a day and age when a person can download files on their cell phone and send them to a coworker at the push of a button, there remain areas within Washington County where people are relegated to dial-up Internet service.

Depending on where you live in Whitehall, Dresden, Hampton, Granville, Hartford or Hebron, you may not have access to high-speed Internet.

Last week, supervisors Brian Campbell of Hebron, and Dave O’Brien of Hampton, had to meet in Granville Supervisor Matt Hicks’ office because they needed to take an online course and didn’t have the Internet capabilities in their own offices.

Kathy Jones, budget officer for Whitehall, said Monday she can’t access the Internet at her home off of county Route 21 and said that the town offices’ Internet capabilities are only a step above dial-up.

She said people consistently stop by the office to ask (or sometimes complain) about the lack of broadband Internet access.

Hawley said the Hampton Planning Board, which she chairs, sent out a survey last year to town residents, who rated the availability of high-speed Internet as very important, right behind maintaining the rural and agricultural character of the community.
There is little reliable data on how many people in Washington County are without high-speed Internet.

During his town hall meeting in Whitehall last month, U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson, a Kinderhook Republican, said figures can fluctuate significantly.

He said the federal government reports that 99 percent of New York has broadband access, but that isn’t true.

According to the New York Office for Technology, just over 95 percent of the state’s households have access to DSL. But that percentage drops to fewer than 75 percent in Washington County.

Tori Riley, president of the Washington County Local Development Corp., said her organization has been working with local government officials to find out exactly where those people live within the county. While the findings have yet to be finalized, she said the lack of broadband Internet is a big problem.

“It’s an economic necessity and a community necessity,” Riley said.

The lack of high-speed Internet access is a huge burden to economic development.

“You can’t compete without high-speed Internet; no businesses will come,” Hawley said. “At the very least they need the ability to process credit cards. The government needs to make a push to get the infrastructure we need so everyone has access to high-speed Internet. Rural America will die in terms of economic development without it.”

Broadband access attracts businesses and would give people who work in Albany, the opportunity to work from home, Riley said.

She also said that broadband access is becoming critical for one of Washington County’s most valuable resources: agriculture.

Farmers today are always looking for ways to cut costs and market their products and the Internet can provide an affordable vehicle to do that, if they have access to broadband service.

“It’s especially important for farmers. Without broadband they are put at a disadvantage because they make their living exporting goods,” Riley said.

The lack of broadband affects other areas of life as well.

“It’s not just businesses that are affected, it’s across all demographics,” Riley said.

Students who live in rural areas are put at a disadvantage because certain educational tools, materials and even online courses may not be available to them. And the Internet could be a lifeline for senior citizens who could relay personal health information to their primary care givers via the Internet.

Riley said the Washington County LDC continues to lobby Gibson and the Federal Communications Commission about how rural broadband money is spent, as she puts it, to “piecemeal together broadband infrastructure throughout the county.’

“We’re pushing to help the un-served and underserved. We’re looking for the area’s broadband infrastructure to be built up.”

Part of that process is encouraging providers to meet with local residents and officials.

Last Monday, about 50 residents of Hebron gathered at the West Hebron Fire House to meet with representatives from Time Warner about broadband availability in Hebron.

And while no promises were made, Riley was pleased that providers are coming to the table and working with people to address their concerns.

Just sitting down and having a face-to-face meeting with providers is important. She said the providers are not required to build out. It has to make good business sense for them.

“Unfortunately you can’t wrinkle your nose and have it done. There is no single provider with a one-size-fits-all solution to the problem. It’s going to take a grassroots effort,” Riley said.

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