Broadband in the Adirondacks: leaders want new community of telecommuters
“Forever Wild” is the term in New York’s constitution used to describe state forest preserves in the Adirondacks. Community leaders in and around the park have used that term to inform their vision for economic development. Their slogan – and the name of a conference held annually at Clarkson University in Potsdam – is “Forever Wired.” The fourth conference continued a push to expand broadband internet access, and economic opportunity, in the Adirondacks.
Jeff Rousell is the poster boy for the Forever Wired vision of the Adirondack North Country region. Both he and his wife grew up in Massena, and like many young, aspiring professionals, they moved to a metropolitan area to begin their careers. Jeff Rousell got a job in Boston with a global software company. Then, in 2002, the couple got the news that would bring them back to the North Country. "My wife and I actually were starting a family, and we learned that we were about to have triplets," he said. With three kids on the way, Jeff Rousell and his wife wanted to be close to their families, but he wanted to keep his job. His employer was okay with him telecommuting, but Rousell wasn't sure if high-speed internet would be available where the couple wanted to live. "I joke that when I learned we were about to have a rather large family really quickly, my wife's first call was to her mother and my first call was to Time Warner Cable to find out if we could get a fast connection, because really, without it, you couldn't do this," he said. "You couldn't do this effectively without telephone and web conferencing on a daily basis." Rousell was lucky. The Colton area had broadband available. He kept his job and a young, professional family moved back to the North Country. And they found there were benefits to the move aside from being closer to family support. "I mean, it's a wonderful area. My wife and I are both really into the outdoors, so being able to live in the Adirondacks, yet still have a career, in a field that I was happy in, was a great opportunity. My children are able to, you know, run down the hill and jump off the dock and go swimming every day, and if we lived in, you know, a Boston suburb, that wouldn't be possible." Rousell's story is one economic development officials and community leaders hope to hear again and again, with broadband access coming to more of the park and the surrounding region. Tony Collins is president of Clarkson University and co-chairs the North Country Regional Economic Development Council. He says when the Forever Wired conference was started three years ago there was a backbone of broadband through much of St. Lawrence County, "but it wasn't reaching out into rural areas, into individual residences and farms, and certainly wasn't into the Adirondacks," he said. All that has changed now, Collins says. Two out of four major federal broadband stimulus projects came to the Adirondack North Country, and the regional economic development council there has made broadband access a priority. "We're now seeing broadband installed. St. Lawrence Internet Connect is hooking up 240 homes a month. It's just a great story. And so, we now have broadband; the next question is people to adopt it and use it for their business. And that's what we're changing our focus to," Collins said. Seaonal residents make up about 40 percent of the park's homeowners. A recent survey of them discovered that nearly half would be interested in living in the park year-round if telecommuting was an option. "And when you think of the compatibility with the objectives of the park – you know, green and sustainable – I can't think of better employment than telecommuting, from that perspective," Collins said. And a larger park population, comprised in part of well-educated telecommuters, would create the need for more services to support them.