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Catskill Connectivity: A New York County Adds Wireless

by Fred D. Baldwin

Photo Gallery
Students at the college enjoy wireless Internet.
The Delhi CyberCommunity network provides wireless broadband Internet access to local public and nonprofit organizations in rural Delhi, New York, including the State University of New York College of Technology at Delhi.

An old real estate cliché—location, location, location—describes many of the assets of Delaware County, New York, in the northeastern corner of Appalachia. The county lies nestled within the Catskill Mountains, an area famous for its resorts and vacation properties. Its assets aren't limited to scenery. Its county seat, the village of Delhi (pronounced "DELL-hi"), is the site of the State University of New York College of Technology at Delhi (SUNY Delhi), which offers more than 60 degree and certificate programs. But the county's fine location brings with it one serious economic liability.

Delaware County is the site of two of the six large reservoirs that supply almost all the water for residents of New York City and its suburbs. Since the 1990s, the eastern two-thirds of the county has been subject to some of the nation's most stringent water quality regulations. Stopping potential pollution at the source enables New York City to avoid massive water filtration costs. But it also rules out any chance of attracting most kinds of manufacturing operations, agriculture on any substantial scale, or other business activities that would put water quality at risk.

"We believe that the combination of college expertise and a rural community setting is a winner," says Candace S. Vancko, SUNY Delhi's president. "We're less than three hours from New York City, but this area couldn't be more dramatically different. Beauty and isolation have protected our environment, but that creates a huge challenge for economic development."

To meet this challenge, Delhi's leadership turned to information technology. With help from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) and other partners, they created the Delhi CyberCommunity, a network providing wireless broadband Internet access to a number of local public and nonprofit agencies. At the project's dedication ceremonies in December 2003, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton called it "a perfect example of a public-private partnership between business, government, and higher education."

The ARC grant covered installation costs, including ancillary hardware needed to make the network functional, as well as network access. Motorola donated access points to create its Canopy system network. Later, the Center for Appalachian Network Access, based at Carnegie Mellon University's School of Computer Science in Pittsburgh, donated additional access points to permit 360-degree coverage. Microsoft donated $25,000 in software for use by participating agencies. From start to finish, SUNY Delhi faculty and staff oversaw the project, and students majoring in electrical construction did the actual installation of access points on the college roof and at user sites.

The project took a big step forward in February 2007, with the opening of the Delaware County eCenter, also supported by a grant from ARC. The eCenter includes a business incubator with room for six or more small firms, a computer lab open to the community, and office space for the Delaware County Chamber of Commerce, which will manage the facility.

The Wireless Advantage

You can get a bird's-eye perspective on why the Delhi CyberCommunity is needed and how its technology works from the roof of the tallest building in Delaware County. This is a seven-story tower located high on the hillside campus of SUNY Delhi. From this height the advantages of a wireless network are apparent. You can see from one end to the other of the valley in which Delhi lies. The line-of-sight distances to points on other hillsides are fairly short, only two or three miles as the crow flies, but running cables to these points would be costly.

To build the CyberCommunity network, technicians mounted a half-dozen radio communication network access points on the tower roof. Each access point is about a foot high, and each is positioned up and down the pole like ears of corn on a leafless stalk. Facing out at 60-degree angles, they can send and receive radio signals to any point on the compass within about three miles. That's enough to cover the small valley.

Until the eCenter opened, the Delhi CyberCommunity participants were mainly public agencies. The Village of Delhi lies at the northern foot of SUNY Delhi's main campus. Prior to the installation of one of Motorola's "subscriber modules" on the roof of the village hall, the village government had no Internet connectivity whatsoever. "I'd be lost without it," says Mayor David Truscott. "The previous mayor did a lot of computing at home because there was no email in this building." He adds that the ability to search online for state and federal grant programs facilitated completion of two pending applications.

"It's greatly enhanced our ability to communicate with local, state, and federal agencies," agrees Bob Walsh, Delhi's chief of police. "Before, checking the registration of a suspicious vehicle was very difficult. The only computer you had was in the sheriff's office. We'd have to call them and fill out the paperwork and bring it to them."

O'Connor Hospital, a 23-bed hospital on a hillside facing the SUNY Delhi campus, uses the new wireless connection to enhance the quality of service offered to patients. James Higgins, the hospital's director of facilities, explains that his original intent was to use wireless only as an emergency backup to an existing broadband Internet connection through a server at a larger hospital in another community. However, by using a laptop with a wireless network card installed, the hospital can give patients the ability to check their email from their bedsides.

Higgins notes that the SUNY Delhi connection provided his first hands-on experience with wireless technology, enabling him to evaluate potential future applications. At some point he expects O'Connor Hospital will develop its own internal wireless system based on a fiber-optic link to the hospital whose server now provides Internet access for clinical and administrative functions.

The most distant CyberCommunity participant, located on the hillside about a mile and a half from the SUNY Delhi tower, is an office of the New York State Department of Transportation, which previously submitted highway status reports and other reports via dial-up connections.

Giving a Boost to Small Businesses

The opening of the eCenter marked a new stage in the expansion of the Delhi CyberCommunity. Its incubator provides a way to give an initial boost to small, for-profit firms. That's been part of the plan all along.

"That's why we started thinking about the Delhi CyberCommunity," says James Thomson, president of the Catskill Development Foundation and chair of the Delaware County Industrial Development Agency. "We feel that by working with tech-based firms, we can create jobs that will pay well and yet have minimal impact on the environment."

"We hope," says SUNY Delhi president Vancko, "to bring in small businesses that will be attracted by low-cost office space, a wonderful environment, and high-speed connectivity. When you're in the watershed, economic development is creating one job at a time."

This kind of growth is beginning to happen. In addition to the chamber of commerce offices, the eCenter now has two tenants. One is IndiePay, a New York City–based company that provides payroll services to film production companies. The other is the Learning Lab, which provides tutoring for students of high school age and younger, both face-to-face and online. Another small firm is expected to move in soon. Delhi officials hope to help create approximately a dozen new jobs by the end of 2007.

About half of these jobs will result from another major step forward, a key part of a long-range plan to turn those highly restrictive water quality regulations into a long-term asset. The new eCenter will house a water quality testing laboratory, the first project to be established under the umbrella of the Center of Excellence in Watershed Applications and Technology-Based Economic Revitalization, a joint partnership between SUNY Delhi and the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry at Syracuse. The lab, which will meet the certification standards of the New York State Department of Health under the Environmental Laboratory Accreditation Program, will provide water testing facilities that are currently not available locally.

This means that dollars spent on mandatory testing will stay in Delaware County, rather than go to distant labs. The lab will also provide SUNY Delhi students with opportunities for hands-on study and internships. Over time, lab staff and SUNY faculty will join in research on "green practices," techniques that reduce the amount of chemicals needed to perform water quality analyses, as well as minimizing costs. The expectation is that this will lead to creating a knowledge base that has commercial value in its own right.

"Someday the water quality regulations we're living under will spread to other parts of the country," Thomson says. "There'll be a demand for the capabilities we're developing. It makes sense that we should become the Silicon Valley of water quality."

Fred D. Baldwin is a freelance writer based in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
March 2007