With relatively few residents scattered across a large area, Columbia County denizens have struggled for years to obtain even basic internet connectivity. Just retrieving email and watching YouTube, let alone streaming an HD movie at a decent resolution, can be deeply frustrating—and also costly.
The population density in Columbia is just 99 people per square mile. As you head southward, that number climbs steadily, with 371 per square mile in Dutchess, 431 in Putnam, and 2,193 in Westchester. This low density means that many fall into the dreaded “last mile” category, in which houses at the far end of a road or more than three miles from a telephone switching stationcan get neither cable modems nor DSL service.
But that is finally changing, though in baby steps that leave this area far behind metropolitan regions.
For the layperson, 3 Mbps is the bare minimum necessary to stream a movie in any decent resolution, without it looking all blurry and blocky—pixillated, designers would say. If you have a big TV or a projector, or have multiple people online in your household (whether on a smartphone, a tablet, a Roku, or just surfing the web) you probably need twice that just to cover normal usage. A power user or large household may want 10-15 Mbps or better.
Several new options have emerged of late for rural broadband customers that bring parts of the County into that territory, at least on paper:
(1) FAIRPOINT. Though it’s not yet reflected on their website, Fairpoint Communications says it has bumped up its top download speeds for both business and residential accounts from 3 Mbps (megabytes per second) to 15 Mbps. A web designer in Chatham reports that she recently upgraded her business account with Fairpoint, and is now getting just over 15 Mbps. The price structure, according to a rep I spoke with, remains the same as before, but with far higher download speeds. Fairpoint services mainly customers in central, northern and eastern parts of the County.
(2) HUGHESNET. For those out of range of cable and DSL, satellite internet provider HughesNet is now advertising its Gen4 service, promising download speeds comparable to Fairpoint’s, up to 15 Mbps. However, since this is delivered via satellite, service can be intermittent. But far more troubling than weather outages is HughesNet’s continued insistence on a “cap” on how much bandwidth customers use to prevent overloading their satellites.
Such caps can greatly diminish the value of higher speeds. HughesNet’s most expensive “power” plan costs $99 per month, and promises a monthly total of 40 GB (gigabytes) of data. If you exceed that limit, your download speeds will be slowed to a crawl, unless you buy expensive “restore tokens.”
Worse, the fine print shows that the 40 GB number is misleading, as half of that allowance can only be used between 2 am and 8 am. So unless you spend most of your time on the internet during the wee hours of the night or early morning, you are really only getting 20 GB. If 20 GB still sounds like a lot, consider that may mean at most 4-8 hours of video streaming at a high resolution per month, setting aside some bandwidth for your other internet usage.
Unless you are a weekender who would only be using the web for a small portion of each month, or someone who only uses the internet for basic news and email, that cap makes the new 15 Mbps Hughes offering pretty useless; it just means you’re going to burn through your small allowance that much more quickly.
I was a HughesNet satellite customer for more than 5 years, and found the service maddening. The data caps (then daily, instead of monthly) often made it difficult to do more than rudimentary stuff online. And their customer service was truly atrocious: ignorance, incompetence and outright dishonesty characterized the typical dealings with Hughes reps. Unless there has been some major change in the culture of this company, I would exercise extreme caution before signing up for these Gen4 services, as promising as they initially sound.
NOTE: The satellite provider WildBlue is basically a repackaging of the same services as Hughes, just with slightly different pricing and bandwidth offerings. The same caveats apply, though I don’t have the same direct (bad) experience with their customer service.
(3) HOTSPOTS. Wireless companies like AT&T, Sprint and Verizon are now aggressively marketing mobile hotspots (with goofy names like “Mi-Fi”) which can provide broadband-like internet to homes over cellular networks. Some of these deliver fairly decent download speeds, depending on your location; the Verizon Jetpack 4G LTE promises downloads in the 5-12 Mbps range.
Various friends in places like Claverack report being satisfied with these services, with the caveat that they are not much into internet video. And currently, there are few places in the County were you can get better than 3G coverage. Depending on the model and plan purchased, you may be able to carry that service around with you if you commute or travel a lot, which is an added bonus.
However, as with satellite internet providers, the devil is in the details. These services can be pricey, and typically have strict bandwidth limits. The highest-level Verizon plan, for example, costs $110 per month with a limit of 20GB of usage. After that, you have to start buying gigabytes of data à la carte at exorbitant rates, or wait until your next billing cycle rolls around. Cell-based services seem to be advancing more rapidly than cable and DSL due to the huge number of people with smartphones; so in a couple of years, the idea of being tethered to a line for internet may seem ridiculous. For now, however, this option requires many compromises.
(4) GTEL. Gtel based in Germantown promises DSL speeds up to 10 Mbps for qualifying business customers, but with lots of asterisks and caveats attached.
(5) MHCABLE. Lastly, Mid-Hudson Cable now claims it can offer business customers speeds as high as a truly whopping 50 Mbps, while their advertised residential cable modem plan top out at an unremarkable 5 Mbps. However, Mid-Hudson still does not reach many parts of the County, primarily servicing the 12534 zip code on this side of the river.
This site was first to report back in 2011 the head-scratching news that MHCable had sent back a much-hyped multimillion-dollar Federal grant to help provide broadband services to “last mile” customers in rural areas of Columbia County.
This meant that customers in less-accessible areas were quoted up-front prices of $1,000-$3,000 for the privilege of then paying MHC for monthly service. Among the reasons cited by Mid-Hudson president James Reynolds for sending back the money for which his company had applied was the belated recognition that it would require MHC to pay its workers prevailing wage on any Federally-funded work.
Others complain that MHC services do not necessarily deliver promised speeds. Mark Orton of Hudson, for example, ran extensive speed tests back when he was still an MHC customer, eventually switching to DSL in order to gain more stable, reliable service that could handle his videoconferencing and other needs.
Considering that Columbia County is now home to many people used to far better internet connectivity, and also an unusual number of so-called telecommuters and self-employed people who work at home, one would think that local leadership would make internet access more of a priority. The County will propose to spend $1 million primarily to benefit a single company operating the Ghent airport, even as many residents can’t get a decent signal through their Apple Airport.
And while it seems that rural broadband conferences are held on a regular basis (and with a lot of press hoopla for any politicians who pay lip service to the idea), progress remains slow. Greene County political blogger Thomas Pletcher called the last such symposium there “a sham.”
In many towns in the area, cable and internet contracts are renewed with little or know actual negotiation or haggling, with the widespread perception in certain municipalities that the well-connected management of such companies have more clout than local taxpayers.
UPDATE: Several people have emailed with questions about NYAir, another relative newcomer here (though basically an arm of Mid-Hudson Cable). I wrote about NYAir back in March at this link. This is not really a broadband service at this point, as you can’t reliable get more than 2 Mbps down, and speeds tend to hover closer to 1 Mbps.
One of their techs told me last summer that the company was planning to upgrade from a 900MHz broadcaster to a faster WiMax system sometime “in the next year,” which could mean closer to true broadband speeds, depending on what they install and how far one is from a tower. Note that NYAir is “backhauling” from these towers (such as the one on Blue Hill in Livingston) to MHCable, which seems to result in major slowdowns in service during primetime hours as thousands of their cable and internet customers tune in.