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The Kaufmans once paid over $550 a month for internet and phone-related services to connect their rural home to the web.
Sarah Taddeo and Jamie Germano and Max Schulte, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

The Savino family sold their Penfield home in 2016 with the dream of a rural Finger Lakes residence on the horizon. But one stipulation has hindered their property search to such a degree that they’ve been stuck in a Canandaigua rental home for the past two years.

That would be high-speed internet.

“We’re pretty easy to please, but the internet is a must have, and unfortunately, it’s killing us,” said Kim Savino, whose husband needs a strong internet connection for his full-time remote job. Savino also uses video and internet teaching tools to homeschool her 11-year-old twins.

The family scoured the region looking for a 5-acre property where they could simultaneously raise chickens and bees and access the internet easily — but to no avail. They checked with neighbors and internet service providers each time a property seemed promising, only to be disappointed by the available connection options. 

“Two years ago, we thought this would be fun,” said Savino. “We’re looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack.”

The Savinos are one of many families who have been affected by the lack of reliable internet connection in rural pockets of the Finger Lakes region. Those living and working in these areas often struggle with fragile connections, outdated equipment or slow speeds, making it increasingly difficult for some families to conduct work or homework activities at home.

While providers like Frontier Communications, Charter Spectrum and Empire Access and others are either offering or planning to offer coverage in places like Ontario or Livingston County, buildout for fiber or cable infrastructure is expensive say providers and can be slow, leaving customers to make do with whatever they can get.

The haves and have nots of broadband 

The state of New York has pumped millions into helping providers build out rural networks in the Finger Lakes and elsewhere through its $500 million Broadband for All program. But there are still pockets of residents that are waiting for better, or any, connectivity, said Phil Dampier of Stop the Cap, a local advocacy group that fights for better broadband access.

“This is a utility now, and we need universal access,” said Dampier. “Economically there’s a major price to pay and rural communities cannot afford to be left out.”

Data from BroadbandNow.com indicates that about 491,000 people across New York state either lack access to any wired internet service, or lack access to a provider that supplies broadband internet, which is a defined by the Federal Communications Commission  as a connection of 25 megabits per second or faster. That number balloons out to over 19 million people nationally lacking access to broadband in rural areas.

According to 2017 census data estimates, between 15 and 18 percent of residents in Livingston and Ontario Counties don’t have any internet connection at all, and nearly a quarter of residents in Wayne County aren’t connected. For comparison, only 12 percent of Monroe County residents lack any household internet access.

For those connected in Livingston County, an average 75 percent use dial-up, cable, fiber optic or Digital Subscription Line, or DSL. 

That figure is slightly higher in Ontario County and slightly lower in Wayne County. Smaller percentages of residents use satellite or cellular connectivity.

The FCC maps internet options across the country, but data about broadband access can be skewed based on reporting procedures, said Dampier. For example, if just a few households in a census block have broadband internet, the entire block could be marked as having access.

That means some residents may fall down the priority list, he said.

Connectivity a roadblock for rural employees

Brian Seeley, a solutions consultant who works remotely from home, moved to Bloomfield from Avon, Livingston County, with his family about five years ago, leaving a solid internet connection behind and hoping for the best at his new residence. 

Since then, he’s been bouncing between multiple speed offerings from Frontier, none of which could reliably handle certain work tasks such as conducting video chats or making calls over the internet, he said. 

“I’ve had to hold off on making any advanced technology upgrades to my home that would leverage the internet (such as a WiFi-connected thermostat) because it’ll just take it down,” said Seeley. When he inquired about connecting his home to Spectrum internet about five years ago, he was told it would set him back $15,000 to extend the line to his home. 

Jackie Cochrane works out of her Naples home and has a backup for her backup when it comes to internet connection — but sometimes she still runs out of choices. 

Cochrane works as a care manager for an insurance company and relies heavily on phone and internet service to contact clients. She’s lucky if she gets a bar or two of Verizon cell service, and her work cell phone isn’t any better than her personal line. She tried Frontier’s internet telephone service, but that was “disconnected more than it was connected,” she said.

Now she uses satellite service with an internet telephone add-on — but that doesn’t interface with her work equipment. On occasion, she’s given up and gone to the local library.

“I have also considered just moving,” she said.

Moving might be an option for those who work from a desk. But for rural farmers competing to sell product and operate cutting-edge equipment, a lack of internet access translates to an economic hit, said Russell Klein, president of the Wyoming County Farm Bureau and a fourth generation owner of Silver Meadows Farm in Wyoming County.

Klein’s farm milks cows with a robotic system that still operates if the farm’s internet cuts out — but without a connection, the system won’t alert operators to internal problems, he said. Farms or farm stands interested in promoting their goods online struggle without ready access to the online world.

“The folks who are trying to live out here and have businesses out here and can’t connect, it really does put them at a disadvantage,” he said. 

Alyson Kaufman welcomed she and her family’s 2017 move to Honeoye, Ontario County, as a way to get her kids out into nature in her childhood hometown. But the transition brought a slew of internet-related headaches.

Their property was rejected by multiple local providers who said it was simply not reachable with broadband technology, and for a time, the family was paying over $550 a month for satellite service, streaming services and cell phone lines, said Kaufman.

As a teacher in the Wayland Cohocton Central School District, Kaufman used to have to stay in her classroom until 8 p.m. some nights so she could use the district’s internet connection to get work done. Her home internet would slow to a crawl between 3 p.m. and 1 a.m. each day during peak usage, and often they’d run out of their allotted monthly data within a week.

“I barely used my computer…it just never worked,” she said.

This fall, she and her wife Andi settled on taking out a third cell phone line connected to a MiFi mobile hotspot, which amplifies the signal throughout the house, she said. This arrangement has worked well so far, and she’s not optimistic about any other internet service providers reaching her location any time soon.

“It’s just not worth their money,” she said. “I understand that from an economic standpoint, but from the standpoint of humanity, when we’re all trying to survive in this world of technology….Internet is no longer a privilege, it’s a right.”

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Charter Spectrum on Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2018, agreed to a record $174.2 million settlement with the state Attorney General’s Office over defrauding internet subscribers.
Joseph Spector, Albany Bureau Chief

Who’s here?

Charter Spectrum

  • Spectrum has built thousands of miles of cable and is always looking to expand based on “density, geography and overall economic feasibility,” according to a company spokesperson.
  • The company’s baseline offering throughout its service area, including rural homes, is 100 mbps, with additional speed options of 400 mbps and 1 gigabit, or 1,000 mbps. 

Frontier Communications

  • Frontier advertises up to 12 megabits per second on the company’s website for these areas, and seems to quickly address any connectivity issues that arise for customers. Some areas receive download speeds as fast as 25 Mbps, said a company spokesperson, and about 1,100 homes in new subdivisions in Canandaigua, Victor and Farmington are currently eligible for Frontier fiber-to-home service. 
  • Customers with service concerns should call 1-800-921-8106.

Hughes Network Systems

  • Satellite providers like Hughes Net are available across the region.
  • Hughes Network advertises speeds of 25 mbps download. Service is available now but prices will be changing as part of a state broadband initiative offering, said a spokesperson. 

Who’s coming? 

Empire Access

  • Empire Access, a telecommunications company operating in New York and Pennsylvania, offers fiber optic internet in more rural municipalities, including Canandaigua, Naples, Bath and Penn Yan.
  • They’d like to expand to other areas of Ontario County in the near future, including Honeoye, Shortsville and Manchester, he said. 

RTO Wireless

  • In the Southern Tier and the Adirondacks, providers like RTO are partnering with Microsoft’s Airband Initiative to provide broadband access to some of the state’s most rural communities.
  • The initiative will use a variety of technologies — including “white space” technology, which uses extra television frequency for internet connection — to hook 20 New York counties to wireless or fixed access in 2019.

Verizon Wireless

  • Verizon announced this summer that it would expand its broadband network to another 47,000 households in parts of upstate, the Hudson Valley and Long Island.
  • Verizon and other telecommunications companies are also involved building out 5G networks across the U.S., which is the next generation of wireless technology that could technically support rural broadband.

STADDEO@Gannett.com

Struggling with your internet service? Tell us! 

Let us know about your internet issue and we’ll see what we can do to help. Email me at Staddeo@Gannett.com or reach out to the Democrat and Chronicle on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. 

 

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