HALCOTT, N.Y. — It’s about 15 miles from here to a dairy testing facility in Roxbury, or about one hour and 20 minutes round trip if you know these dusty mountain back roads like Chris DiBenedetto, a dairy farmer. He has been going back and forth for years, ferrying a sample of fresh milk for a federally-mandated drug test before he can start processing each batch.
But what stressed him the most were the valuable daylight farming hours lost to the journey, while he was stuck in his car or waiting for the results.
Now, DiBenedetto gives a sample to a driver heading that way to do the drop-off, letting the new fiber wiring hanging over his old route do the simple document delivery for him via e-mail.
The dairy farmer in this speck of a town about 140 miles north of New York City was one of the first beneficiaries of an ambitious initiative to extend broadband to every household in the state by 2018 — no matter how rural or far-flung the address — which would make New York the first state to reach that high-speed Internet milestone.
For years, this town was like many isolated spots in New York and across the country, left sitting on the shoulders of the digital highway unable to access the broadband speeds that so many businesses and households count on. But now under a state-led program, towns like Halcott, with fewer than 300 residents, are getting wired, giving residents faster access to the Internet and opening opportunities for businesses.
Two Stones Farm, a small goat farm here, has created an online store to offer more products, including artisanal cheese. “I look at it this way, it’s very much like electricity was at one time,” said Alan White, 54, who owns Two Stones Farm with his wife. “Electricity would have never come to our valley if it was based strictly on population. It’s not a luxury. It’s a necessity that we need to operate.”
For those used to having broadband at their disposal, it is hard to imagine not being able to Skype for a job interview, send messages on LinkedIn or Facebook, download an eTextbook, upload a homework project or binge watch on Netflix. But about 12.6 million American households lack access to broadband, according to a study last year by the Federal Communications Commission, which has classified broadband as a type of utility, similar to telephones.
The problem is worse in poorer and rural areas: at least 30 percent of people in Mississippi and Arkansas do not have access to broadband, and sparsely populated states like Montana have similar access rates.
Under Governor Andrew M. Cuomo’s “Broadband for All” initiative, New York’s program is one of the most aggressive broadband expansions in the country, and is designed to help stem any losses a private company incurs through what is known as a reverse auction process.
Using data from the Federal Communications Commission to identify both unserved and underserved areas, the program divides the state into census blocks. The state then auctions off grant money for each census block, awarding the financing to the private company that seeks the lowest state subsidy.
Turning on broadband can instantly transform lives in rural places.
Here in Halcott, a hamlet in the Catskills, the broadband has allowed DiBenedetto to broaden his business online — a yogurt company in Brooklyn recently contacted him about a single source contract. His daughter, Elena, was able to help out on the farm while getting a master’s degree online.
“In today’s technology-driven world, access to high-speed internet is essential to building strong communities, growing the economy and supporting our everyday lives,” Cuomo said. “New York is leading the nation with the largest state broadband investment program in history — ensuring high-speed Internet access for all residents, especially those in rural areas, and empowering students, entrepreneurs and businesses to thrive in our global economy.”
So far, the state’s partnerships with private companies has worked relatively well and has enabled the program to make steady progress. But that has not always been the case when local governments have relied on companies to upgrade Internet networks. Though it was not a part of Cuomo’s plan, Mayor Bill de Blasio was forced to sue Verizon this month after the company failed to build out its promised fiber-optic network to every home in New York City.