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Forever Wild conference discusses progress, impact of NNY broadband


POTSDAM — North country leaders are no longer talking about how broadband Internet service will transform the region’s economy in the coming years — because it already is happening.

On Friday, for the fourth and final time, Clarkson University hosted the Forever Wired Conference, a meeting of telecommunications, economic, academic and political leaders focusing on the spread of high-speed Internet access across the Adirondacks and the north country.

“The key to the future of the Adirondacks is to bring in broadband,” said Anthony G. Collins, Clarkson University president. “St. Lawrence County is going to be the most wired county in the country.”

Despite recent efforts, the region still lags behind the rest of the state and the country when it comes to broadband connectivity, said David B. Salway, director of Empire State Development’s Broadband Program Office.

“The north country stands out in terms of percentages and numbers,” he said. “Ten percent don’t have broadband lines,” the highest among the state’s regions.

To close the gap, broadband Internet, which allows information to be transmitted rapidly to and from the Internet, has been the focus of several economic development initiatives, spearheaded by the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, President Barack Obama’s wide-ranging federal stimulus measure, which put $293 million into rural broadband development nationwide.

“The backbone is federal investment,” Mr. Collins said. “You have to have that money invested.”

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s “Connect NY” grant program, announced in August, will focus on expanding service to rural areas of New York.

The North Country Regional Economic Development Council has also placed broadband development among its priority projects for two years in a row, and for good reason, said Mr. Collins, who is also the council co-chairman.

“We think our objectives are being met in encouraging the spread of broadband,” he said. “We’re already playing at the highest level.”

Another reason is that broadband Internet access allows those who have grown up or received education in the area to bring their jobs back, said Jeffrey L. Rousell, principal Web architect for business software developer PTC.

“I grew up here, but I had to leave to find a job,” he said. “I was able to come back because of broadband. I was lucky enough to have a camp in Colton, where there was a presence of broadband.”

Mr. Collins said the spouses of Clarkson University employees have turned to telecommuting to bypass the otherwise depressed north country job market.

“At Clarkson we have a spousal issue, but we have found that spouses can bring their jobs with them,” he said. “We have a space downtown where they can telecommute.”

Stephanie Ratcliffe, executive director of the Wild Center at Tupper Lake, said broadband access will allow her to connect to the museum’s patrons beyond the short tourism season, expanding its visibility.

“The Adirondacks is a highly seasonal environment,” she said. “Out of 12 months in a year, 70 percent of our revenue is made in three summer months, and 78 percent of our members live outside the park. We knew distance learning was something we had to look into.”

Broadband will put the Wild Center into public schools and homes, Ms. Ratcliffe said. The museum is already at work designing a “virtual visit” that can be experienced over the Internet.

Mr. Collins referred to tourism as a useful tool to ignite economic development.

“We see tourism as the lure on the end of the fishing line,” he said. “Tourism needs to be seen as a tool to attract money to the area, and then we need to retain it.”

Paul Smith’s College professor Diane Litynski, director of business management and entrepreneurship studies, presented research that suggested broadband access was persuading seasonal residents of areas like Keene Valley to extend their stay, keeping their dollars in the local economy.

“There has been a wonderful increase in business,” she said. “Seasonal visitors to Keene Valley are staying longer, and 75 percent of second-home owners are visiting more.”

The physical signs of state efforts to link the Adirondacks and the north country to broadband were apparent in maps presented by David M. Wolf, telecom division manager for the Development Authority of the North Country. Mr. Wolf said a broadband line stretching across much of the Route 3 corridor between interstates 81 and 87 will be complete within two weeks. Another line, between Potsdam and Plattsburgh, will be completed shortly after.

DANC and its partners are linking communities across the region with larger networks. Other companies, such as SLIC Network Solutions, a subsidiary of Nicholville Telephone Co., are working to link households and neighborhoods to the larger regional lines, said Mark Dzwoncyzk, Nicholville president and CEO.

“We connected 293 houses last month,” he said. “We’re working at literally state-of-the-art speeds. I get better broadband at camp here than I do in Silicon Valley.”

Mr. Dzwoncyzk said traditional sectors such as major manufacturing and state-funded prisons were unlikely to be job creators in the north country, but there was promise in the growing communications technology field, noting that his company’s most recent hire was a former corrections officer.

“We’re now up to 48 full-time jobs here in Potsdam,” he said. “We can always transfer prison jobs to broadband jobs.”

Next year, Mr. Collins said, he hopes the conference will be hosted in the Adirondacks, increasing focus on maintenance and adoption of broadband as demand for further development recedes.

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