"It is realistically deployable and supportable," said committee member Larry Berger, who presented the recommendations Tuesday. "We came to the conclusion that fixed wireless enables us to achieve our goal of universal access now, and at moderate cost. It also preserves our options for future upgrades."
Berger showed two maps, one generated by the state and another based on local data that local Internet provider Clarity Connect collected, that show where there is no broadband coverage in Tompkins County. The disparity was eye opening, with the state map showing only a few small pockets around the county. Berger said this is important because funding for broadband access projects is based on where you can corroborate evidence of need.
"Approximately 4,700 households are currently without broadband or access to broadband," Berger said. "That is much greater than what the State says. We also found that speed is very important to people in the community from the self-selected answers to questionnaires that we had available to us at the time."
The committee considered five kinds of Internet delivery systems including power line delivery, DSL, cellular 4G, fiber, and fixed wireless. They are recommending fixed wireless because it has lower installation and start-up costs, and is easiest to upgrade without major infrastructure or equipment upgrades. Berger said that local companies like Clarity Connect are already implementing fixed wireless systems in portions of the county, so the local expertise is already here. Committee Chair Pat Pryor said there are at least four local companies that could provide fixed wireless Internet access. Competition among local and larger companies are expected to keep the price down.
Berger said the committee had heated discussions about how to fund county-wide broadband. He said they found some opportunity and a lot of ambiguity. Local funding is most likely, but will require community support. Federal, state, and local grants will provide some funding, and committee members seemed to agree that some public funding will be needed. That will mean explaining why universal access is of benefit to taxpayers who already pay for Internet access.
Committee members spoke of the need for broadband for business and industry, small business, school work, applying for college and for jobs, and noted that the ability for local residents to receive content is as important to businesses and content providers as their own ability to post it on the Internet.
Pryor said that it will be important to have a plan in place so when funding opportunities become available the County will be able to compete effectively with a shovel-ready plan. She also said that a County broadband system may be able to make use of emergency system (911) towers the county already owns that provide radio access to emergency providers in most areas of the county.
Committee member Hurf Sheldon noted that the Rural Electrification Program that was begun in the mid-1930s took 30 years to complete. He said that is an unacceptable model for implementing rural broadband.
The next step is planning, but the big hurdle will be funding. Pryor said the county missed a first round of state and federal grants for broadband, but she expects second round of funding.
"Part of our goal is to make sure that we're prepared this time," she said. "So that when there's grant funding out there we can take advantage of it. When we talk about establishing a business plan, that's what that's for."
Residents said that the state and large Internet providers like Time Warner and Verizon have to be held accountable for inaccurate data, inconsistencies in pricing and service, capping data access, and so on. There was some discussion of stop-gap solutions available today, though most residents were dissatisfied with expensive solutions that don't provide adequate speed and service.
One resident asked how long it would take to implement a fixed wireless broadband system. Committee members said they expected the project to take years to implement, including planning, and especially obtaining funding. But once that is done Sheldon said it could be built very quickly.
"If we could get permission to put the right towers in and get some private funding, which I think we could do, we could probably have something up and running in less than 12 months," he said.