Washington County and parts of the Adirondack Park are getting better connected.
Officials say cellular service and increased broadband connectivity in areas where they've been lacking are vital to economic development, safety, education and quality of life in the region. And state Sen. Elizabeth Little, R-Queensbury, plans to keep fighting for more coverage.
"Without it, we're missing a lot of opportunities," Little said Thursday. "There are still a lot of parts of Washington County that don't have service, and we're working on getting those connected."
Cellphone coverage is sparse in many rural areas, which means it may be difficult for students to participate in distance learning, people may not be able to dial 911 in an emergency and it can isolate residents.
The situation has improved, Little said, recalling a time when one could drive from Warrensburg to Tupper Lake with no cell service the entire time. Now, people can connect at some points along the way.
One of the biggest reasons coverage has been so sparse is that cellular and broadband carriers didn't see much of a return on their investment in rural areas, but it's become so vital for the economy, Little said.
"It's not just chatting, that's now what this is about anymore," Little said. "We need year-round residents in the North Country and without coverage, we're not going to attract businesses to locate here or young people to stay and work here."
On Thursday, representatives from AT&T announced in a press conference at the Huletts Landing Volunteer Fire Company that they have activated more cell sites, bringing coverage to areas where it was either spotty or nonexistent. They gathered with Sen. Little and Art Borin, a member of the Dresden Town Board and president of the Huletts Volunteer Fire Company, to announce new cellular sites that have been activated in Bolton, Caroga Lake, Hague, Huletts Landing, Johnsburg, Northville, between exits 25 and 26 of the Northway and Pilot Knob. The company has also been improving and increasing broadband capacity in the Adirondacks, and activated three Washington County sites last week: Argyle, Easton and Mount Colfax.
The changes mean AT&T customers can make phone calls in more places in the Adirondacks and Washington County and that there's improved broadband availability.
"In an emergency situation, time is a critical element," Borin said. "There have been times here and around the lake when it took entirely too much time to respond because we weren't made aware of it."
For Sen. Little, this has meant working with multiple cellular and broadband providers to expand and improve the coverage in some of the most rural areas of her district, including Verizon Wireless.
Verizon has added broadband capacity to more than 50 sites in the area, has focused on improving cell coverage along the Northway and has brought cellular coverage to about 40 new sites in the past two years. The company has also filed applications with the Adirondack Park Association for new sites in the park, said John O'Malley, Verizon Wireless public relations manager for the upstate New York region.
Without identifying specifics, O'Malley said the company is looking for other expansion opportunities too.
"It's challenging - it's a mountainous area and more sites are needed to cover it," O'Malley said. "The signal doesn't go through the mountains, so you need to engineer around them."