Rural broadband coverage hard to come by

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About a year ago, Claire Perez started trying to figure out why she doesn't have broadband at her house in West Dryden.

She points to a box full of research.

"It's various things that I've figured out. And I prefer to use the data than just to go off the top of my head here," Perez says.

Time Warner's cable ends about a half-mile down Perez's busy road. She's walked up and down the street, knocking on doors, figuring out who has high-speed internet and who doesn't.

Perez and her neighbors beyond the end of the cable have access to a satellite service. But that has a daily cap on it and Perez can't stream long videos.

"The fact that I'm only .5 miles from these Time Warner connections on a major route, ten miles from Cornell University, and nobody can help me in the government get connected and every time I've gone to various things it's like no, no, no," she says.

Perez's frustration is not uncommon, according to Pat Pryor, a Tompkins county legislator. Pryor is the head of the county's broadband committee. She says when she was campaigning in her rural district, many people complained about how slow their internet is.

"Rural families are no different than anybody else that way," says Pryor.

But getting broadband internet to rural areas is not easy or cheap. A company has to run a line along the road, rent space on poles, connect it to each house. Perez says she got a quote of $23,000 to have her house connected by Time Warner.

Government could step in and help with this problem. The 2009 stimulus act included money for expanding broadband into rural areas. But, according to the official maps that show where broadband reaches, almost all of Tompkins County was incorrectly shown as covered.

Legislator Pat Pryor says that has made funding much harder to find.

"Oh, it matters because a lot of times that's what grant funding is predicated on. If you don't have any unserved areas, why would you need a grant? We're almost 100 percent covered, why would we need any money?" she says. "Not true. Not true."

The government considers a census block covered if it contains a single house with broadband. That works in urban areas, but not rural ones where one house could have service but the neighbors don't.

Pryor's committee and the state are working on fixing those maps by doing more detailed research. New York also started its own broadband programs before the recession and more money is slated to come through the regional economic development councils.

But the head of the state's broadband program office, David Salway, says every underserved area faces its own challenges and has to be looked at separately.

"So it's not a one size fits all kind of a problem that you can solve with one solution," says Salway.

He says in some places, like Tompkins County, a system of towers that relay a wireless signal could reach the last houses. In other places, it might be fiber or cable or a combination of technologies.

Those plans don't do much for Claire Perez in Dryden.

"Why isn't there somebody, with internet being as big as it is, why isn't this problem being solved in a more aggressive fashion? In fact, I'm so angry that I have to refocus my energies. I really do," she says.

After a yearlong obsession, Perez is coming to realize that there might not be a solution.

Tompkins County might find funding for its wireless network. And they might find enough towers so they can relay the wireless signal. But if Perez is hidden from the view of those towers, she might still be out of luck.