Living in Tompkins County is a balancing act. People who can’t afford to live in the City of Ithaca can move to its outskirts, or farther out into the county, in search of more affordable housing options.
But as they do, they face another set of challenges: less density means less people, which means less incentive for businesses like Spectrum (or others) to provide consistent, efficient internet, phone or television service to those area. With internet access becoming arguably the most important commodity in the world, the Town of Dryden, led by Town Supervisor Jason Leifer, is looking to rectify the issue by installing its own broadband system that would give residents faster, cheaper internet access.
It’s still early in the process, as surveys are being distributed to gauge interest in the project, but Leifer sounds determined and there’s never a shortage of complaints regarding internet access in rural municipalities like Dryden. More details about the total cost will be determined once the survey is completed, but Leifer said the rough estimate he’s been given is $12 million to set up the entire system.
“The local government owns their own broadband system, so it would mean laying fiber down every road in the town and then hooking up subscribers as they want to,” Leifer said. The system would be the first of its kind in New York.
Leifer said currently, Dryden is conducting a study to determine what companies people use for internet access, and how many use each company; he said right now people in Dryden can use Spectrum, Clarity Connect, HughesNet or Frontier DSL, while some use their cell phone to create a WiFi hotspot. If the infrastructure is established, it would be available for all residents, but not mandatory, and only those who participate would pay a monthly fee.
“The idea is to offer it for less than Spectrum charges, and I’m hoping for faster speeds,” Leifer said. “And it’ll have nothing to do with property tax. It’ll be all user-driven. People who are subscribing are going to be paying for the system, it’s not going to be an extra bit on your property tax bill.”
There will, of course, be certain advantages for people who opt to remain with one of the private service providers in the area. For instance, Leifer said Dryden won’t be attempting to provide TV or phone services along with the municipal internet, leaving a void where companies that bundle those services will still be the only option.
Leifer is hoping to have the survey concluded by late July or early August, after which work could theoretically begin, granted there’s sufficient interest in the proposal. The innovative move, which is also being considered by Yates County, has been implemented in hundreds of other municipalities around the country, but not yet in New York State. State and federal grants are available to extend broadband access in certain locations, but progress in places that have received those grants hasn’t seemed satisfactory enough.
“All these grants are just piecemeal, they’re not solving the problem and the thing about Dryden is [...] it’s not enough to change the game,” Leifer said. “This is the only thing that’s going to change the game.”
Leifer said in an email that there is a minimum number of subscribers the town would have to enroll in the system to ensure that it remains financially viable. Their goal enrolment numbers are between 3,000 and 4,000, which would be substantially above the minimum necessary for viability, and would represent about 25 percent of the Town of Dryden’s total population.
“We don’t know that there is a maximum number of subscribers we could serve but the goal is to run fiber past every residence and business and connect as many residents and businesses as possible,” Leifer said, adding that the Town would be pursuing grants to offset build-out costs as well. “The cost of the system is not impacted by the number of subscribers. The more subscribers we have, the faster the system can pay for any borrowing used to build the system.”