"All of Tompkins County and almost all of Cayuga County will be served within a year," says Clarity Connect General Manager Ryan Bartosch. "Lansing is the closest to us and it's certainly dense enough that we're going there first. We're marketing there as well."
In September former Tompkins County legislator Pat Pryor told the Lansing Town Board that Lansing would be one of the first communities served because its residents had expressed the most interest in using the service. Clarity Connect has a list of 2,000 people in Tompkins and Cayuga Counties who signed up to express an interest in the service. This Tuesday the company called the first 19 of them, all in Lansing. In the course of only one hour, nearly a third of them said they want to hook up now. Three days later those six Lansing households are being connected.
The new tower, located in Mecklenburg, is equipped to serve about 400 households. As the customer base grows more devices may be installed to increase that capacity. Clarity Connect has offered broadband for some time, in Dryden and other communities. The main towers are served by a fiber optic infrastructure offered by two providers, including the local Finger Lakes Technologies Group, Inc. (FLTG). Bartosch says the company has been testing the Mecklenburg tower for weeks, and it is now ready to go.
"We're hooking into FLTG's fiber optic connection so that we don't have to limit people's connections, or data rates," Bartosch says. "We don't need to put a cap on (bandwidth) because we're hooking into fiber optics. We have been flipping it on and off for the past month. We have been beta testing and trying to make sure we can insure a high quality of service when it's up and running."
The entry level of service costs $35 per month (if you pay for a year up front) for a 5 megabit package, which can be split 1/4 (upload/download) or 2/3. A ten megabit package can be split 2/8 or 4/6. Bartosch says that while the Time Warner entry level package is 1/15 in most cases users don't need that much. An installation fee that covers most of the cost of the equipment and installation costs is under $95 for most locations. (For some qualifying people in need the installation fee may be waved, and/or they may pay lower monthly fees.)
"Ours doesn't seem like much compared to Time Warner, but very few people use more than 4 megabits for their downloads," he observes. "A Netflix movie stream requires about three megabits per second, but if you ever wanted to upload something you're immediately shot with Time Warner. You should be able to stream two Netflix accounts on 4 by 1 without any latency problems. Our second tier package has the ability to be configured 4/6, with is four times the upload speed as Time Warner. So we have a better symmetry available to us."
While prices may rise in the future, the company has kept charges steady for existing customers. That may mean that now is a great time to sign up for the service at $35 per month.
"We have never raised prices on people who have had previous service," Bartosch says. "So we actually have people out there paying $20 per month for our high speed service because they bought it and were grandfathered in."
He adds that the service provided at each level may increase as the technology improves, and that people who need more bandwidth now can get it. The towers themselves are capable of about 100 megabits per second (MBPS). Bartosch says that allows people with special needs to get a much faster level of upload and download service than Time Warner offers. Software upgrades to the equipment on the towers may bump the basic household service package capacity from five to as much as 20 MBPS at some point in the future.
With all of the towers interconnected the company can currently offer service from 40 to 60 MBPS. Bartosch says that provides more options to people who need unusual amounts of bandwidth and speed to work from home in a wider area than was ever available before. For example, radiologists who need to upload and download large x-ray files can receive them almost instantly now in a rural home or office. And the wifi system can serve parks and other areas that aren't well served -- or able to be served -- with a cable solution.
Most of the technology in a home installation is in the receiving device, a surprisingly small dish that typically mounts on the facia below the roof of your house, or on an extending tower on houses obstructed from the tower signal. A cable is extended from the device to the inside of the home, where it is connected to a very small device, about half the size of a cable modem. A computer or a router can be plugged into this little box. Bartosch says customers may use their own router or lease one from the company. If they choose the latter Clarity Connect can offer a higher level of home networking service. A typical installation takes about two hours. If it turns out that a home can not receive the service, there is no charge for the appointment.
But Bartosch says the company uses satellite imagery and other technology to get a pretty good sense beforehand of whether any specific location is able to receive service. He says that homes that may seem obstructed can likely receive a signal, and that weather does not impact this kind of system nearly as much as it does satellite television reception.
A $2.2 million state grant is being used to fund the project that encompasses most of Tompkins County and parts of southern Cayuga County. Most of the radio 'towers' that make up the distribution part of the system look like telephone poles, though they are somewhat taller at 61 feet. They are all interconnected to provide redundancy and consistant and better service. A few poles are slated to be erected in Lansing, which will add coverage to areas not yet served.
Aside from the fact that the company is offering a great product at a reasonable price, one of the attractions of receiving broadband service from Clarity Connect is that it is a local company. That keeps dollars inside Tompkins County, and implies a more responsive company. The enthusiastic interest in the service also means that the company will begin to expand almost immediately in order to serve the wave of new customers. Bartosch is proud that Clarity Connect is a living wage company, providing jobs for people who might otherwise not have been able to get good, well paying jobs in the current economy.
"In my opinion Internet is a utility that ought to be thought of, maybe not quite like water, but close," he says. "It's a human right to have access to it. That's a third of our mission: to pay our people well, improve the community and improve New York. I love watching my team grow. I've certainly made more money elsewhere, but I haven't made as big a difference in people's lives either. An people love having broadband access."