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Niagara, Orleans counties trying again for rural broadband funding

LOCKPORT - A new bidding period starts Monday for companies and communities looking for state assistance to expand high-speed Internet services to unserved areas, and the contractor planning such a project in rural Niagara and Orleans counties intends to seek funds.

The counties chose Seneca Solutions, a company owned by the Seneca Nation of Indians, to provide the rural broadband service, using equipment from Resolute Partners, a Connecticut-based information technology company.

However, the counties' first effort at funding earlier this year was stymied because of the merger of Time Warner Cable, one of the region's major Internet providers, with Charter Communications. State regulators ordered Charter to supply a list of 145,000 addresses in the state to which it intends to expand broadband Internet service at the conglomerate's expense.

Niagara County Legislator David E. Godfrey said last week that Charter did so, but none of the locations it chose were in Niagara or Orleans counties.

Thus, it's back to the state bidding process for Seneca Solutions. The state broadband office is offering $50 million statewide in this round of funding, with proposals being sought from Monday through the end of November, and announcements of funding possible before the end of the year.

"This second round is all about rural broadband," said Orleans County Legislator Lynne M. Johnson, R-Yates. She and Godfrey, R-Wilson, have been working on the rural broadband project for several years through the Niagara-Orleans Regional Alliance.

Surveys taken on behalf of the local governments turned up about 4,000 homes in the two counties with no facilities for high-speed Internet services. Godfrey said it's estimated that it would cost about $5 million to provide such service, which the legislators say has become vital for economic development as well as education.

"It's become infrastructure as necessary as a bridge or a road," Johnson said.

This summer, the state changed the rules a bit, allowing applicants to count "underserved" addresses - places where there is slow Internet access rather than no access - as unserved. That boosts the number of homes that could be included in the Niagara-Orleans application, although neither lawmaker had a count of those addresses.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has set a goal of Internet download speeds of 100 megabytes per second statewide by 2020. Godfrey said, "If you don't have 25 megabytes, you're considered unserved, not underserved."

Johnson said fiber-optic cable, far faster and with much greater capacity than old-fashioned copper telephone cable, is relatively rare outside urban areas in the two counties.

However, the Niagara-Orleans proposal isn't dependent on installing fiber. Much of the plan Seneca Solutions developed called for wireless service, using existing structures more than 40 feet tall as antenna points.

"We're going in with a variable approach," Johnson said. "It's not running wire from house to house."

It's possible, Godfrey said, that loal projects such as the one in Niagara and Orleans counties might be allowed to start with 25-megabyte download speeds and upgrade later.

There is a bureaucratic question that has to be solved before the application is sent in. The state is awarding the funding through its network of regional economic development committees. Niagara County is part of the Western Region, while Orleans County is grouped with the Finger Lakes Region.

Johnson said the question is whether two applications are needed, or whether Seneca Solutions should simply to the Western Region on behalf of Niagara County, which has more unserved homes, and simply wrap Orleans County into that application.

Either way, the legislators were glad the state Broadband Program Office has made helpful changes in its rules for funding requests.

Johnson said that office "has been very helpful on the variances, really holding our hands to get broadband service to Western New York."

"All the census blocks will be eligible," Godfrey said. "They recognize that if one house is not served, the whole block is not served."

That's a reversal from the state's previous viewpoint, which allowed utilities such as Time Warner and Verizon to claim an entire census block had broadband service as long as at least one home in the block had such access.

Any funding received for the Niagara-Orleans project will require a match, but that money will have to come from the companies, not the counties. "They're looking for a 50 percent match out of the private sector," Godfrey said. But it's possible the match could be as low as 20 percent.

"Our counties don't want to own the broadband," Johnson said.

Each applicant for funding must promise to serve at least 250 homes, although the state would prefer much larger numbers, at a cost to consumers of no more than $60 a month.

If the Niagara-Orleans project loses out in this round, there is likely to be another round in 2017. And the state is now allowing companies and communities to apply to other sources of broadband funding, such as the federal Connect America program, Godfrey said.

"Niagara and Orleans continues to ready - at the front of the line, we hope," Godfrey said.



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