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Bringing Broadband to Underserved Communities in Upstate New York

March 15, 2023
The broadband revolution, which has created boundless opportunities in education, communication and even entertainment, passed by less populated parts of New York as well as the country as a whole.
During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, the importance of broadband internet connectivity became glaringly obvious for many of us.As offices, schools and businesses closed and stayed shuttered for weeks and in some cases months, many of us were or still are working or learning remotely.

In parts of our country, however, there are areas where broadband connections are limited or non-existent, and those communities, typically in rural areas, suffered. It is increasingly clear that this disparity needs to be addressed.

The broadband revolution, which has created boundless opportunities in education, communication and even entertainment, passed by less populated parts of New York as well as the country as a whole. Because of the cost to private broadband companies to build connectivity to rural areas, large providers have missed many rural communities or homes.

At the same time, New York State is transitioning to newer forms of clean energy. These newer forms of clean energy and the accompanying modernization of the grid require enhanced monitoring and communications that are best served using broadband connections. Now is a critical time to address the issue of community broadband deployment in New York all while enabling the transition to clean energy.

Last fall, National Grid partnered with the Development Authority of the North Country (DANC) and Southern Tier Network (STN) to submit two proposals to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) for middle mile infrastructure funds to expand broadband access and affordability in parts of New York, while building an improved, digital network across our electrical grid in the state. The proposals, if chosen by NTIA, would be funded by The Federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

The partnerships among DANC, STN, and National Grid bring together two sets of expertise: DANC and STN bring experience delivering critical open-access middle-mile broadband services to homes and businesses across their region; National Grid owns and operates hundreds of miles of utility pole infrastructure that helps deliver those critical services, while also providing electricity for thousands of residents of upstate New York.

In partnering with DANC and STN, National Grid hopes to address two issues with one solution: to help bridge the digital divide while enhancing the electrical infrastructure in rural areas on which so many depend. DANC, a state public authority, and STN, a 501C3 nonprofit, were both created to support their regions and are  experienced in delivering open-access middle-mile infrastructure to drive low-cost broadband within their respective communities.

National Grid is certainly not getting into the broadband business. But the proposed projects would use federal funds along with National Grid capital to build out shared fiber optic infrastructure in locations in upstate and western New York to provide middle-mile capabilities for internet service providers, connectivity for community anchor institutions, and communication infrastructure for the energy system.

For National Grid, the energy transition is seeing a national and regional shift to renewable energy and battery storage. As such, modernization of the grid requires digital communication to support the novel technologies and provide faster response times when issues impact the electrical grid. Systems are becoming more intelligent, interconnected, and consumer-centric. Electric and gas networks are no longer operating on their own, but with the support of a robust data network. The expansion of this data network is critical to ensure real-time power system and market data is available to maintain the reliability, security, and safety of the electricity grid. As that transition continues, the need to harden and enhance the electrical grid and its communication network has grown — especially in rural areas. 

STN and DANC have been addressing the need for broadband service to homes and businesses in rural areas for years. Despite fairly large public investment in addressing this need, service to many areas with low populations is still lacking due to the economics of building and maintaining service to a handful of homes. This partnership with National Grid, if NTIA approves, helps build in these rural areas as the costs are borne not just the broadband consumer but also the electric consumer who benefits from the increased connectivity.

The two projects would bring connectivity to nearly 21,000 unserved households in upstate and western New York and benefit another 2,500 underserved households.  Combined, the two projects would deploy more than 650 miles of fiber-optic cable, using existing National Grid distribution infrastructure, across underserved regions of New York. Additionally, these projects will provide resiliency for Tribal-owned broadband entities and National Defense facilities in these areas.

These partnerships also help address a key challenge that often occurs when delivering broadband infrastructure. Broadband projects can require extensive make-ready support to prepare the utility poles for the new fiber optic cables, which can be expensive, approximately 40% of the total project cost. These make-ready costs can make it challenging for projects to be financially sustainable for broadband providers who must bear the investment in make-ready infrastructure. This project is different in that the electric customers are directly benefiting from the new infrastructure and so is National Grid, as the pole owner and the electric utility who is receiving a portion of the fiber install, will help offset the make-ready costs. By sharing these fiber assets, electric customers will be receiving infrastructure required for the power grid at a discounted rate, and the installation costs are reduced for DANC, STN, and ultimately the broadband consumer.

By enhancing that connectivity, the New York electric grid would have greater capacity to integrate new renewable energy resources, respond faster to outages, and operate more efficiently. The quantity of renewables that can be connected to the grid is limited because of the existing technology, which is used to protect the system and ensure the reliability and resiliency of the power grid. Instead, modern power system protection technology with high-speed communication between electrical substations can support high levels of renewable energy generation.  

The residents in these regions would benefit twice from the proposed project: They would at last get access to broadband service, bridging the “digital divide” and improve their ability to enjoy the benefits of advanced telecommunication upon which America increasingly relies, while receiving improved electric service.

The digital revolution passed some communities by. It’s time that oversight was rectified. And as the energy revolution gets underway, we need to make sure rural communities are part of the solution. No one should be left behind in the energy transition. 

Mark Thompson is director of Grid Modernization at National Grid, and Jeff Gasper is CEO of Southern Tier Network

About the Author

Mark Thompson | Engineering Manager, IEC 61850

Mark Thompson is the engineering manager for the IEC 61850 group at National Grid. His group is responsible for the development and rollout of IEC 61850 throughout the National Grid U.S. territory. He has more than 10 years of experience with industrial and utility power and control systems. He holds a BSEE degree from Rochester Institute of Technology and will complete a master’s degree in public administration from Syracuse University in 2018. He is a registered professional engineer in New York.

About the Author

Jeff Gasper

Jeff Gasper is CEO of Southern Tier Network.

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