Most Sullivan County residents and businesses could get to subscribe to a speedy, new countywide wireless internet network by late 2023, if the county Legislature has its way.
In late August, the Legislature voted to create the Broadband Local Development Corporation. And the Legislature will soon appoint a five-member board for the LDC – a private, nonprofit, independent public benefit corporation.
Locally, the digital divide between the high-speed internet haves and the have-nots is notorious. Some 2,789 Sullivan County residents, or 3.7 percent, don’t have high-speed mobile or fixed internet access, compared with 5,925, or 3.3 percent, in Ulster County and 0.3 percent, or 1,140, in Orange County, according to a 2018 Federal Communications Commission study using 2016 data.
In a 2018 mail poll, 700 of State Rep. Aileen Gunther’s constituents in Orange and Sullivan counties complained about the lack of service, quality and rates of Charter Spectrum, the dominant local telecommunications provider. (Locals also use Frontier Communications and satellite internet service).
“This is transformational technology for the county,” said Lorne Green, the county’s chief information officer, the LDC board’s inaugural member and the project’s point person. “Being able to provide these high speeds over the air is unprecedented” in Sullivan County.
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Green said rates for low-, mid- and high-speed service tiers have yet to be set, but they’ll be competitive with or cheaper than private market rates. He hopes the network will be fully operational and self-sustaining by the end of 2023, with 60 percent to 80 percent of locals able to access it, and, thereafter, a continued ramp up to 100 percent.
The LDC currently has federal grant funding, plus a grant from an organization of Northeast U.S. border counties, to build two of the 12 long-term evolution or LTE wireless broadband communications antennae towers deemed necessary.
And county officials are seeking various federal grants to build the other 10 towers, Green said. All told, setting up the wireless broadband system is expected to cost between $2.5 million and $3.5 million, he added.
The network’s maintenance and operations costs thereafter are still being finalized, but subscriber fees will cover them, Green said. Up to 44,779 residential and 1,213 business customers could initially buy into the network, which would provide speeds of up to 200 mbps or megabits per second, compared with typical, current broadband speeds of 6-7 mbps.
“Sullivan County has long been of only mild interest to broadband providers,” county Legislature Chairman Robert Doherty said in a statement. “So, (the Legislature) is stepping in to give the kind of internet service our residents and businesses have to have.”