Westerlo seeking more than $1.5 million in broadband funding from federal government

WESTERLO — The town of Westerlo has applied for more than $1.5 million in federal funding to bring broadband to its rural residents, and has received an endorsement from Congressman Paul Tonko, who selected the project as one of 10 he’s recommending to the federal House Committee on Appropriations.

With that money, which would come from the United States Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect Program, the town can add an estimated 900 homes and businesses to a broadband network by covering the cost of fiber installation, according to a description of the project on Tonko’s webpage.

The description states that, as of now, only 30 percent of the town, which has a population of about 3,300, has access to broadband, which is viewed as the most reliable source of internet access, particularly in an area that’s geographically unfriendly to satellite-to-home connections. 

To qualify for funding through the ReConnect Program — which has yet to be funded for a new cycle but has distributed $1.3 billion across the country since its inception in 2018 — an applicant must show that at least 90 percent of the proposed service area lacks access to speeds of 25 megabits per second downloading and 3 megabits per second uploading, a USDA spokeswoman told The Enterprise this week.

“It’s not a heavy lift for the town to meet those criteria,” Supervisor William Bichteman said.

Lack of internet access in the Hilltowns is a well-known issue, stemming from the fact that internet service providers aren’t incentivized to spend the money to reach out to sparsely populated areas.

Hudson Valley Wireless General Manager Jason Guzzo told The Enterprise last June that the cost to build a network that connects the last “one or two percent” of households in a low-density community makes it an obstacle that can only be overcome with federal funding.

That funding has become all the more important since the coronavirus pandemic gave rise to remote working and learning, which requires high-speed internet access. 

Late last year, the Federal Communications Commission announced that it was investing $20 billion in rural broadband through its Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, distributing the money to companies who have shown they can provide adequate access.

The Hilltowns are expected to be served by the company SpaceX which has been launching satellites capable of delivering high-speed internet to homes that are equipped with the company’s proprietary satellite dish.  

However, the cost to residents, which currently stands at $550 for the hardware and its shipping plus a $99 per month subscription fee — more than twice as much as the cheapest rate advertised by Hudson Valley Wireless — is likely to turn many of them away, or exclude them altogether

Bichteman said that, to address that complication, Westerlo will apply for a second grant — the Community Development Block Grant, which ranges from $50,000 to $100,000 — that would provide assistance to families in the town that need it in order to access any internet that may be available to them.

“Regardless of whether we have the service available to the properties,” Bichteman said, “we still have to be able to make that connection. The town of Westerlo has, on paper, a median income which is above what they consider to be low and moderate income. 

“However the majority of the population in the town is low and moderate income … so we’re looking for separate money to accommodate people who are not in a position to afford high-speed internet.”

That application has until August to be finalized, Bichteman said, crediting the town’s broadband committee, headed by Dorothy Verch, for its efforts in compiling the necessary information.

In the meantime, as Westerlo waits to hear whether the ReConnect Program has funds to deliver and if the town will be a recipient, Bichteman said that the community is writing letters to the appropriate representatives, aiming to “make the case that this is an important thing for our town. And this is just the beginning: if Westerlo can make this work, then other communities can make it work too.”