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State funding rules may obstruct rural broadband plans

LOCKPORT – Voters authorized the state to spend $2 billion on a “smart schools” initiative that includes potential funding of broadband Internet connections in rural communities, but the rules might impede the efforts of Niagara and Orleans counties to obtain such service.

Niagara County Legislator David E. Godfrey, R-Wilson, said he found out that the grants included in the school technology proposition passed last November are reimbursement grants, meaning that local school districts must spend the money up front and wait to be paid back by the state.

That might interfere with the notion of obtaining money for the upgraded Internet service through the Orleans-Niagara Board of Cooperative Educational Services, said Godfrey, who has been spearheading the rural broadband effort along with Orleans County Legislator Lynne M. Johnson. R-Yates.

They’re working together through the Niagara-Orleans Regional Alliance, set up a few years ago by the counties to work on projects of common interest. Broadband is its first major initiative.

“It’s kind of cool that you’ve got two counties working together,” said Clark Godshall, superintendent of Orleans-Niagara BOCES.

He said rural broadband definitely was part of the intent for the smart schools proposal. He said some schools have been making their own preparations for wireless Internet service, which is a potential for the overall alliance contract. The alliance hired a Medina consultant, Evhen Tupis, and his BPGreene firm to conduct a survey of unserved areas in the two counties, which covered all of Orleans County and seven towns in Niagara County.

The Tupis survey included an inventory of existing structures tall enough to host antennas. Godfrey said the state also is offering a potential $500 million in matching grants through the state’s Connect NY program.

That is supposed to be accessed through the state’s regional economic development councils. But the issue there is that Niagara and Orleans counties are not in the same region for that purpose.

Niagara seeks funding through the Western New York regional council, but Orleans must do so as part of the Finger Lakes region. “It’s not unheard of to apply with more than one,” Godfrey said.

However, he said, neither the governor’s office nor the state Education Department has come up with a means to apply for the money yet.

After determining the size of the potential market, the alliance sought proposals from Internet service providers in January who were interested in making high-speed Internet available to rural areas. Time Warner and Verizon, the big providers in the region, have declined to do so because of the cost of laying fiber-optic cable in remote locations.

The alliance did receive replies from four other companies, however. Godfrey said two or three others who heard about the project belatedly contacted the alliance after the deadline, but it would be illegal to let them bid now, Godfrey said.

Godfrey said the alliance sent questions on the proposals to the four bidders. “Then the committee will select one or two vendors they want to interview,” Godfrey said.

Godshall said Erie I BOCES is helping analyze the prospective vendors. Godshall said he also has met with Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul about the school technology issue.

Districts are supposed to submit a Smart Schools Investment Plan to Albany, where a board comprising the education commissioner, the budget director and the chancellor of the State University system is to review it. Districts whose communities are taking part in the Niagara-Orleans broadband initiative have been allocated a total of nearly $13.7 million that they may ask for.

Godfrey said a technical issue has cropped up, too. He said Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo wants the new broadband connections to accommodate download speeds of 100 megabits per second, which Godfrey said is four times higher than most existing New York networks can handle.

According to the 2014 Global Internet Report, the highest median download speed in the world is 57 megabits per second in Hong Kong. The U.S. average is 18.47 megabits per second, which is 30th in the world. He said he hopes that 25-megabit funding will be available. Godfrey said Cuomo “would do 25 meagbits in the truly rural, underserved areas.”

email: tprohaska@buffnews.com