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Niagara and Orleans towns asked to ante up for broadband

LOCKPORT – Niagara and Orleans counties are asking their rural towns to consider paying $4,800 apiece for a survey that will document areas where high-speed Internet service is not available.

The Niagara-Orleans Regional Alliance, comprising officials of the two counties, has identified the lack of broadband service as a detriment to development in outlying areas.

Niagara County Legislator David E. Godfrey, R-Wilson, said towns have the option of using their own employees to catalog the roads that don’t have such service. The towns in Orleans County that border on Niagara County already have gone that route.

But Godfrey said the Niagara County towns of Somerset, Newfane, Wilson, Cambria and Porter have agreed to spend up to $4,800 for the services of Evhen Tupis, a Medina engineer who has been pushing the broadband effort forward.

“We’re certainly interested in trying to increase the access to broadband for our residents,” Somerset Supervisor Daniel M. Engert said. “We’re going to do our best to get some competition for Time Warner.”

Godfrey said the study price is based on road miles and the number of houses to be surveyed, and the actual charge could well be less than $4,800.

Tupis said his firm, BPGreene, will charge towns $1,000 to train their employees to conduct such a survey correctly.

In the Orleans County towns of Ridgeway, Shelby and Yates, Tupis conducted the training for town workers. He said last week that Ridgeway and Yates already have turned in their studies, with Shelby’s expected soon.

The two counties have inquired about a state grant through Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Connect NY program, but Godfrey said that money is only available for infrastructure construction, not studies.

Bids to be sought

Once the service area is defined, the counties intend to seek bids from private firms to provide high-speed Internet service, most likely via wireless transmitters.

“The county is not going to be creating an infrastructure,” Godfrey said.

That will be good news for Town of Lockport Councilman Paul W. Siejak, who opposed government “getting involved with something private enterprise should be doing.”

During a work session of the Lockport Town Board earlier this month, Siejak opposed spending the $4,800. “I don’t think it’s government’s job to do this,” he said.

Supervisor Marc R. Smith said Lockport could use better Internet service in the northern and eastern parts of the town, which are still sparsely populated.

Godfrey said, “In the Town of Lockport, they could go another mile and pick up another 40 or 50 houses.”

“Time Warner won’t even talk to you,” Lockport Councilwoman Patricia Dufour said. “They say flat out, ‘You’ll never see it.’ ”

Time Warner spokeswoman Joli Plucknette-Farmen said, “Our goal is to provide our services to as many residents who request them as possible.” She said the number of homes per mile of road and geographical features are the primary factors in decisions whether or not to extend cables.

“When we get requests from residents or a municipality asking us to expand our services into an area we do not serve, we always look into the request and survey the area,” Plucknette-Farmen said. “We have provided service assessments of all of the areas the officials from both counties have requested.”

Godfrey said, “The two counties, working together, will put together a request for proposals to send to four or five ISPs [Internet service providers]. Time Warner and Verizon will be forced into a competitive situation.”

He said the counties will focus their first planned bid in the towns along the county line. Godfrey said service could be expanded from there in the future.

But first, the addresses where broadband is unavailable must be compiled. The providers, such as Time Warner, have statistics on coverage, but Godfrey says they are often exaggerated.

“They say Wilson is 85 percent covered. We proved it’s only 65 percent,” Godfrey said. “We use address points. They use census blocks. If there’s one house [with broadband access] in that census block, they consider it covered.”

“The broadband penetration numbers are based on the New York State broadband map,” Plucknette-Farmen said. She said the mapping complies with federal regulations.

Recent meeting in Albion

Godfrey said State Sen. George D. Maziarz and Assemblywoman Jane Corwin met recently with a Time Warner executive in Albion.

“We let Time Warner know we were doing our study because we wanted to own the data,” Tupis said. “We’re not excluding Time Warner from participating in the RFP. We hope they do.”

Godfrey said the county sought a high-speed Internet connection at its voting machine storage building on Transit Road in northern Newfane. Time Warner’s nearest service was a mile away, but the company said running a cable that distance would cost the county $20,000.

“The contractor they would have used said he would have charged $3,500,” Godfrey said.

Besides the addresses that have no broadband access, the survey also would compile “vertical points” in the neighborhood that are at least 40 feet high. They would be considered as locations for the wireless transmitters that would someday provide the service.

“It could be a church steeple or a very large silo,” Godfrey said. The owners would be paid for their use.

Tupis said an Internet service providers from Rochester, the Southern Tier and Michigan have shown interest in bidding on wireless service in Niagara and Orleans.

Tupis said all three companies also may be interested in competing with the big companies in wired Internet services in areas that have broadband. He said the goal is “to allow the free market to determine who would come in and provide the service.”

Maziarz introduced a bill in Albany this year that would have created a program allowing residents and small businesses in a particular area to band together and choose a broadband provider.

Any expenses the residents and businesses incurred in the recruiting process would have been refunded by the state in the form of a five-year tax credit. Maziarz’s bill passed the Senate June 12 but was not acted upon in the Assembly. Plucknette-Farmen said Time Warner supports that bill.

Tupis said, “Our goal is to introduce affordable yet sustainable and profitable commercial ISP service at no long-term cost to Niagara or Orleans county taxpayers. Along the way, a certain number of IT jobs will be created, and our rural economies will be able to compete, just as our more affluent neighbors already can.”