Broadband and community development in the Hudson Valley

On March 29 at Indotronix in Poughkeepsie, Hudson Valley Tech Meetup—hosted for the first time by Gerry Pallor of RXI Digital—tackled a hot-button issue: broadband internet. According to the FCC as of 2015, the term “broadband” refers to a type of internet connection, such as cable modem, DSL, fiber, or satellite, that’s always on (as opposed to dial-up) and capable of download speeds of at least 25Mbps.

Broadband is not yet ubiquitous in the Hudson Valley or other areas of upstate New York. Because access to reliable, fast, and affordable broadband has such vast implications for a community, there’s a big push to expand access to as many homes as possible across the region.

Speakers included Tim Smith and Jim Nocito from Lightower Fiber Networks, Chris Fisher from the New York State Wireless Association, and Clayton Banks from Silicon Harlem. Together, these speakers presented several key takeaways about the reality—and the power—of broadband in the Hudson Valley.

Broadband is possible in the Hudson Valley

As Chris Fisher, communications lawyer and president of the New York State Wireless Association (NYSWA), explained, current networks were built for voice, not data. So there is a need for an infrastructure update. You might have seen the “Frankentree” or “Frankenpine” sticking out above the trees in some areas of the Hudson Valley—that’s one attempt to provide better data connection infrastructure without disrupting the surrounding environment too dramatically. This and other kinds of infrastructure that can improve our communities’ internet access require funding (often partnering with an internet or technology company), advocacy, and planning.

But, as Tim and Jim from Lightower highlighted, there already is some capacity for reliable broadband in the Hudson Valley, in the form of fiber networks. Lightower, a facilities-based provider of telecommunications services, owns and operates their own high-speed fiber network that runs right through Kingston—in fact, we’re a Lightower customer! They also offer options like ethernet for multiple locations and cloud connectivity, which is great for businesses. Many think that fiber internet is too expensive for their business—but as Lightower points out, Internet downtime costs American companies a collective $46 million per year. Depending on your industry, reliable internet might be key to your business’ success.

Closing the digital divide is essential to promote community growth and equality

As Chris Fisher and Clayton Banks highlighted, access to reliable broadband internet in the home and community has become absolutely essential to keep up with modern life. The “digital divide” is the phrase used to describe the gulf between those who have ready access to computers and the Internet, and those who do not—often seen along racial, age, and socioeconomic lines.

First of all, access to reliable internet means expanded career and job opportunities for individuals. It opens up the ability for them to work remotely, and in today’s work-at-home “gig” economy, is even more important. Secondly, internet access has become key to educational opportunities, at both the secondary, college, and even primary level. Clayton Banks describes students in Harlem without access to reliable internet at home standing outside Starbucks, trying to catch a WiFi signal so they can finish homework. While libraries have long been the sole providers of public internet access, Chris Fisher explains, it’s no longer enough to have just one building in town with fast, free internet.

And lastly, the ubiquity (or lack thereof) of broadband becomes an issue when we start to think about technological improvements to healthcare, transportation, and other urban systems. Wearable healthcare tech, heralded as the latest great improvement in the management and prevention of illness, is useless without a network to support it—not just in the home, but in the entire community. And updates to transportation and sustainability, which often happen as a city strives to become “smarter,” again require a robust city-wide broadband network.

“If we’re going to live, work, and play well,” Chris stated, “we’re going to need broadband.”

Reliable broadband internet means economic development

In addition to, and sometimes overlapping with, the necessity of broadband for education and career opportunities, the availability of reliable high-speed internet is also a boon for economic development. Tech is the fastest growing industry in the United States, and tech companies moving into a community means jobs—not just for those working at the company, but for those in the community surrounding and supporting that company (think computer supply and repair shops, marketing agencies, and even coffee shops).

But obviously, considering the aforementioned $46 million loss at the hands of unreliable internet, a tech company must settle in an area that can support their connectivity needs. Even companies that aren’t explicitly tech companies, such as design and media companies, require high-speed internet to function. The lack of broadband in some communities is preventing them from acquiring the companies—and jobs—that can help their economy grow.

We need to increase “digital literacy”

Clayton Banks described digital literacy as the level of understanding that consumers have about their own internet speed, their internet company contracts, and their rights. Consumers won’t demand better service unless they understand what they’re getting—and what reliable internet could mean for them and their community—so education is a big part of Silicon Harlem’s mission.

Additionally, Clayton is partnering with Lightower to ensure the infrastructure in Harlem is state of the art, and provide better internet access (what he calls “ultraspeed” options), with a better customer experience, to Harlem residents. This effort has proven successful, bringing new tech companies, jobs, and opportunities to the area. He hopes Harlem can become a model community for others who wish to improve their economy—demonstrating that internet infrastructure is a great place to start.

Read more from Gerry Pallor’s “Broadband Matters” blog! And join us at the next HV Tech Meetup.