WATERTOWN — Jefferson County officials now have a better idea of what broadband access looks like across their districts.
On Tuesday, the Development Authority of the North Country presented the results of the Jefferson County Broadband Study to the Board of Legislators General Services Committee. The study, conducted over three months starting in January, dovetails DANC’s studies in Lewis and St. Lawrence counties over a similar time period.
In Jefferson County, the study consisted of two parts: a survey for anyone who rents or owns property in the county and an inventory of existing infrastructure done by DANC staff.
Overall, 1,439 people responded to the survey, with 94.5% of those respondents being residential property owners or renters.
“We didn’t hear from a lot of businesses,”said Laurie A. Marr, director of public affairs and communications for DANC, as she presented the information.
For both residential and business respondents, 21% reported having no access to broadband internet, only DSL or dial-up, and an additional 14% reported they only have access via satellite or cellular hot-spot. That totals 35% of respondents indicating they have no access to broadband internet.
A majority of the county, 50.1%, reported they have cable internet access, by far the most common form of broadband, high-speed internet access. Only 3.1% reported they have access via fiber-optic cable, the fastest available domestic internet solution.
Wireless internet, provided via large antenna stations that beam signals directly to special dish-shaped antennas for customers, was available for 11.9% of those who responded to the survey, while 8.2% of people reported that they use cellular internet at home.
A total 6.2% of people reported they have no home internet access, let alone broadband, at all.
Of the 67 respondents who said they have no internet at all, 73% said it’s because there’s no available provider and 22% said their options are too pricey. Most of those respondents, 65%, said the lack of internet at home causes problems for them with work, and 59% said it causes a problem for getting schoolwork done.
Most without internet said they’d be willing to pay between $25 and $50 a month for internet, and 85% said it’s important or very important to have a choice in providers.
Survey respondents were also asked to provide comment about their opinion on their services if they have any. According to DANC’s presentation, the most common complaint was high prices, followed by a lack of choice.
Jefferson County is served by a number of cable internet and TV providers, but their coverage areas rarely overlap. The most common provider by far is Charter Spectrum. Frontier Communications, TDS Telecom and Verizon Communications cover much of the rural areas of the county with internet or phone service. Citizens of Hammond, a family-owned cable company based out of St. Lawrence County, and its subsidiary Castle Cable offer internet, phone and TV service to a small portion of the towns of Theresa and Alexandria.
DANC officials said they found that Jefferson County is generally well-served by broadband service providers, but the rural towns of Worth, Rodman and Lorraine, as well as parts of Rutland, Champion and Alexandria need more work.
While many roads across the county have coaxial-cable based broadband service, there are significant gaps in service that leave some regions without access while other nearby regions have ample access.
DANC officials said many of these underserved areas will likely be addressed by the New NY Broadband Program or the federal Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, but those grants have six-year implementation periods that DANC officials warned could be too long.
With those grants and others in the works, DANC officials said, many residential customers in the county currently have or will soon have a choice of providers and technologies at their homes, typically a choice between Spectrum coaxial-cable based service or another companies fiber-optic service.
DANC officials suggested Jefferson County work in partnership with local providers to make the needed improvements, especially to create a program to incentivize companies to build out the underserved regions of the county. They stressed that, based on the comments, securing a second internet service provider to cover areas that are now covered by only one company should be prioritized.
“The county could play a leadership role and share the costs with public, private and grant funding sources,” David M. Wolf, DANC Telecommunications Division director, told the committee Tuesday. “The information developed in this study will serve as the justification you need to solicit the needed grant funds.”