Cheers for Madison County Effort to Bring Fiber to the Farm and Beyond

Situated in rural Central New York, Madison County (pop. 71,000) was named in honor of America’s fourth President, James Madison. But it was the region’s history of growing hops for beer that really put the county on the map. By 1859, New York state produced 80 percent of all hops grown in the U.S., thanks in no small measure to the crops in Madison County.

Today, while the community still celebrates this history at the annual HopFest, county leaders are now focused on the future and how to ensure the region does not get left in the dust by missing out on an essential economic development ingredient: high-speed Internet connectivity. In a modern economy, broadband infrastructure is indispensable in general terms and specifically for the efficient operation of precision agriculture

With a focus now on the digital landscape, Madison County planners have embarked on a project to bring fiber to the farm as well as thousands of other other residents and businesses across the region.

What really got things off the ground, or rather into the ground, was the county being awarded a USDA ReConnect grant last year. Madison is the only county in United States to directly receive ReConnect grant funding in FY 2020.

In July, the USDA announced it would grant $10.1 million in ReConnect funds in support of the project to deploy a fiber-to-the-premises network that will connect 2,170 people, 50 farms and 30 businesses to high-speed broadband in Madison County as part of a larger countywide project. The county will work with private Internet Service provider (ISP) Empire Access to eventually bring fiber connectivity to nearly 7,600 households in the region.

A Fertile Land For Fiber

Two years ago, Madison County officials decided to make broadband a top priority. The most underserved area of Madison is in the southern part of the county, where DSL and satellite were primarily offered, with limited addresses eligible for cable access. 

The county held community forums. The response was overwhelming: frustrations with the limited, unreliable options had been long brewing in the community. 

“A lot of people came out and talked about the lack of access, lack of customer service, the speed issues,” County Administrator Mark Scimone told ILSR in an interview. 

After discussions with the County Board of Commissioners, it was decided the county needed to step up to bridge the digital divide the incumbent ISPs were either overlooking or just unwilling to address.

At first, the county considered working with other neighboring counties to find a way to connect everyone in the region, but they ultimately ended up moving in a different direction.

The county issued a Request for Proposal (RFP) in 2019 to find a consultant that would be able to help collect and analyze the data necessary to figure out where there were holes in coverage across the county. It was decided that they would move forward with ECC Technologies, a technology and communications consulting firm that has worked with communities across the state of New York on broadband projects. Scimone said that it seemed like the perfect fit to survey community members and gather information about current networks.

“Phase one, they literally drove every square mile of Madison County with an engineering team to find out where fiber was and where it wasn’t,” Scimone said. 

Once they were able to map out where the existing fiber was in the county, a survey called the Broadband Availability and Adoption Campaign (BAAT) was released and received approximately 2,000 responses. The responses seemed to echo the findings of the infrastructure assessment: there were hundreds of unserved or underserved households. 

Anecdotes poured in about folks having to drive their children or grandchildren to the nearest town’s McDonalds or the library to upload their homework or write a paper. There were farmers trying to increase business and sell products at the farm but didn’t have reception or a connection to process payments. 

The county decided that with the help of ECC it should apply for a ReConnect Grant . The biggest challenge: the ReConnect grant process favors applicants that already do, or are primed to offer broadband services. That means local governments getting into the broadband business for the first time have a mountain of upfront work to do. 

“They were asking for things that we don’t have, we don’t maintain,” Scimone said. “You need to be pre-approved that you’re solvent . . . well, we’re a county government. We raise taxes to fund our operation. We’re not going to go bankrupt.

It’s not an easy process for anybody to go through,” he continued. “If you’re going to do it, you have to have a consultant that has experience with putting in these applications because there’s a lot of hoops you’ve got to jump through and I would think if we didn’t have ECC, we never would have got this grant. We just wouldn’t have been able to do it. There’s no way.”

Competition Crops Up

When it came to choosing an ISP to partner up with, the county was looking to shake things up and bring a new provider into the area. 

“One of the biggest complaints we were getting from our residents was that the providers that were here, the service providers weren’t doing a good job of providing a high level service,” Scimone said. 

ECC recommended the winner of PCMag’s Fastest ISPs of 2021, Empire Access, a regional fiber optic provider that serves communities throughout New York and Pennsylvania. 

A willing partner, Empire is contributing an additional $2.47 million to the $10.1 million ReConnect grant to go along with the county’s 25 percent match. With this money - which will cover nearly 800 households - the county will hire an engineer to help design and eventually build the network. The county will own the infrastructure and lease it out to Empire Access. The hope is that the first phase of construction will be built out in the next two years. (See larger image of ReConnect map.)

While the ReConnect funds only cover the parts of the county that are underserved, Empire Access has decided to build beyond that and ultimately reach approximately 7,500 households in the county, covering 28 percent of the county. 

The approximately 320 miles of fiber will be deployed using a mix of hanging fiber on poles and running through underground conduit. 

 “We’re excited that we have a new competitor coming into the marketplace that will drive competition,” Scimone said. 

Header Image Courtesy of Stephen Sommerhalter, Wikimedia Commons.