Lexington hosts first-ever broadband pep rally

Above: Adam Cross, left, the code enforcement officer for the town of Lexington, and Kim Do, a part-time Lexington resident who helped compose the "Broadband Anthem," at the Broadband Pep Rally on July 18. Photo by Julia Reischel.

A boisterous crowd of between 150 and 200 people gathered under a pavilion in the Greene County town of Lexington on Saturday, July 18 to demand broadband high-speed internet service in their remote Catskills town of 805 people, where even old-fashioned landline telephone service is spotty and cell phone service is nonexistent.

The rally, which was organized by resident Bonnie Blader, aimed to convince Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration to fund half of a $3 million project to lay 76 miles of fiber optic cable to 90 percent of the town’s residents.

To set the mood, group of singers in cowboy hats performed a “Broadband Anthem” set to the tune of the “Rawhide” theme song.

Enjoy “Kim Do and the Broadbands” singing the Broadband Anthem during The Lexington Farmers Market and Lexington Broadband Initiative Pep Rally on July 18, 2015.

Posted by Lexington NY Farmers Market on Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Above: Singers and musicians perform "The Broadband Anthem" at the Lexington Broadband Pep Rally on July 18. Video shot by Kashka Glowacka.

Some sample lyrics:

Lexington is lovely. There’s nothing here that’s ugly. I’d upload pics if I had gigs onhand … Broadband!

We need Broadband!

Rollin’ Rollin’ Rollin’
For grants we are a-trollin
I’d like to stream a movie! That’d be grand!

Abandoned by Verizon
We ain’t compromisin’
We’ll ride dark fiber clear across the land

"We wanted elected officials to walk away with the echo of the song in their heads to differentiate us from other communities," said Kim Do, a part-time Lexington resident who helped write the song. Do also played guitar during the performance, and wore a cowboy hat and a bandana, in keeping with the "Rawhide" theme. 

Worst of the worst

Greene County has been identified by the governor’s office as having the worst broadband access in New York state. According to Warren Hart, the director of Greene County Economic Development, Tourism and Planning, broadband access in Lexington is particularly bad.

“This town is pretty much wholly unserved,” Hart said.

Broadband is a hot topic across the county. Last week, President Barack Obama announced the launch of a pilot program that will bring high-speed internet to low-income houses in 27 cities across the U.S. The next day, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio announced a $10 million plan to provide free broadband in public housing developments

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced his own $500 million broadband initiative in January, promising to bring high-speed internet to all New York State residents by 2019. 

Six months later, it isn’t clear exactly how that $500 million will be parceled out to local internet service providers, and Lexington is hoping for a piece of the pie.

Above: Bonnie Blader, with microphone, addresses the crowd at the Broadband Pep Rally on July 18. Photo by Julia Reischel. 

“There is a cost of a digital divide, “ Blader told the crowd, prompting cheers. “If we get broadband, we help everybody in Greene County.”

The town has the ear of David Salway, the director of the New York State Broadband Program office, who attended the rally on Saturday and noted the “tremendous amount of support from people in the area” for broadband in Lexington. (Salway also said that he has never encountered a broadband pep rally  -- or a broadband anthem -- before.) 

$38,000 per mile

The backers of the Lexington Broadband Initiative say that it costs $38,432.54 to build just one mile of fiber optic cable to Lexington’s underserved residents, and that Verizon, the local telephone company, isn’t willing to shoulder that burden.

To fill the gap, a constellation of local businesses and nonprofits want to use a combination of public funding and private financing to fund a $3 million broadband project in the town.

MTC Cable, an internet service company based in Margaretville, would build the infrastructure, which will be funded with 51 percent private investment and 49 percent public capital. MTC has received public funding for several rural broadband projects, including one in the nearby Greene County town of Halcott.

The Lexington Broadband Initiative has a crowd of partners: the town of Lexington; Greene County Economic Development, Tourism and Planning; the Western Catskills Community Revitalization Council; the Catskills Watershed Corporation; New York State Electric & Gas Company (NYSEG) and Mid-Hudson Cable.

"Market failure"

On Saturday in Lexington, after the singers finished their song, local politicians and dignitaries took turns calling for public funding for broadband infrastructure in the town. Congressman Chris Gibson called broadband access a “critical issue,” and said that the Lexington Broadband Initiative was “a very viable project.”

Above: Warren Hart, Greene County's director of economic development, speaks at the rally. Photo by Julia Reischel. 

State Senator George Amedore said that he fought to put broadband funding in the state’s budget, and vowed to bring “our fair share upstate.”

Calling the lack of high-speed internet in the rural Catskills a “market failure,” State Assemblyman Pete Lopez compared New York’s broadband grant program to the federal Rural Electrification Act of 1936, which provided loans to bring electricity to isolated rural areas. 

“I see a strong parallel,” Lopez said. “Laying fiber optic is expensive. Ultimately, the providers work on a for-profit basis. When the free market fails, that’s where we come in.”

Lopez also said that he is working on separate scheme to bring broadband to the Catskills using cell phone towers and wireless signals, which he called the Northern Catskills Broadband Initiative. He said that the New York City Department of Environmental Protection and the New York Power Authority may cooperate on a plan to install cell towers broadcasting wireless internet in places like Gilboa in Schoharie County.

Full disclosure: Lissa Harris, the publisher of the Watershed Post, is a shareholder in the Margaretville Telephone Company. The business was founded in 1916 by Harris's great-great-grandfather, John Birdsall, and remains in the family. Harris is not employed by the company or involved in its management.

Previous coverage: 

In visit to Roxbury, state officials vow faster Internet for rural NY, March 2, 2015