Rural communities in Tompkins County are finding new ways to get residents online
Like many rural towns in upstate New York, Dryden had a connectivity problem the town has tried to solve several times.
First, there was dial-up, then DSL, then a spotty wireless service.
This piece-meal approach to broadband wasn’t cutting it, said Dryden Town Supervisor Jason Leifer.
“You know, for the time it worked okay, but there were still areas of town it didn’t catch,” he said.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, thousands of Tompkins County residents don’t have internet access at home. Internet companies are less likely to provide service in areas with lower population density, like Dryden.
Oftentimes, that leaves these towns in a position where they are forced to negotiate with larger internet companies to get them to provide service in the area. Usually, these negotiations include financial incentives for the company.
In 2018, the town tried to strike a deal with Spectrum to get internet access to its residents in rural areas. Leifer said the deal was looking a lot better for Spectrum than Dryden.
“They wanted us to sink this money into it, but not own any of it. There were no guarantees on price,” he said. “So to me, it was just unacceptable.”
The town board did something few municipalities do. They rejected an internet giant.
“I kind of just said, ‘Well, I guess there's no reason to talk anymore,’” he said. “I'll go find my own money and build a system.”
Starting a broadband company is easier said than done. To this day, there are 16 states where municipal broadband has either been regulated out of existence or outright banned.
When the board walked away from Spectrum, municipal internet didn’t exist at all in New York. There weren't any laws banning it, but there also wasn’t any legislation explicitly protecting it.
Regardless, Dryden forged ahead with the project.
The town started its own broadband company, Dryden Fiber, in 2019. The project cost $15 million and utilized money from the American Rescue Plan Act.
Residents in its coverage area can now get complete internet service from their town.
Leifer said when the market abandons communities like his, it’s up to local governments to step in and solve their own problems.
“Nobody is coming to save you,” he said. “There is no white horse coming in, no shining knight on a white horse coming in to save you from the big, bad telecom companies.”
Dan Lamb, deputy supervisor of Dryden, said Dryden Fiber is revolutionary because its goal is expanding broadband access, not making a profit.
“That's why we say, ‘Your town, your internet,’” he said. “That's our slogan.”
Lamb said situations like this are exactly when government intervention is necessary.
“We have a market failure here,” he said. “And there is a role for a local government in particular, because we're closest to our community, to be involved in this.”
Right now, the cheapest Dryden Fiber plan costs $45 a month.
Lamb said affordable internet access is necessary for a community to thrive economically and socially.
“Why not reinvest in the community? Why not charge less?”
A county-wide issue
Dryden isn’t the only local government trying to address this issue. The rest of Tompkins County is also full of places internet companies just won’t go.
Tompkins County legislative Chair Dan Klein listed expanding broadband access as one of the legislature’s main priorities for 2024.
Klein said it’s time for local governments to step in too.
“The big internet service providers are just not interested in doing what we [in] Tompkins County are doing, which is to reach every unserved address.”
The county’s approach is different from the Dryden Fiber model. Instead, the county put out a request for proposals from companies to serve individual towns, with the goal of covering the entire county. So far, they’ve got eight proposals.
The county is still evaluating the bids and should reach a decision in the next few months, Klein said. He added, his constituents need access as soon as possible.
“School, work, telehealth, recreation, entertainment, it's very hard to participate fully in society without access to broadband internet.”
The town of Caroline in Tompkins County is right next to Dryden. The town is currently looking into doing something similar to Dryden, a sort of "Caroline Fiber."
Town Supervisor Mark Witmer said he thinks it’s the future of broadband in the town.
“I think most of my board agrees that this is a better option,” he said. “It's investing public money in a public utility that'll serve the public and enhance competition.”
The issue is on the agenda for the town’s board meeting Wednesday.