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Niagara and Orleans counties to receive 95% broadband coverage

LOCKPORT - Charter Communications will provide broadband internet availability to 95 percent of the addresses in Niagara and Orleans counties, according to two county lawmakers who have been pushing for state funding for the service.

The legislators said Seneca Solutions, the company with which the two counties made an agreement to provide rural broadband coverage, is not expected to bid in the current competition for state aid. The deadline for the second round of proposals was Wednesday.

Niagara County Legislator David R. Godfrey, R-Wilson, and Orleans County Legislator Lynne M. Johnson, R-Yates, said they learned from the state Broadband Program Office that Charter planned to lay enough fiber-optic cable to make high-speed internet service available to all but 943 addresses in Niagara County and 77 addresses in Orleans County.

Those unserved homes are scattered on remote roads in the counties' rural areas, Godfrey and Johnson said.

As a condition for Albany's approval of Charter Communications' merger with Time Warner Cable, the company was required to extend broadband service to 145,000 addresses in the state during the next four years. Godfrey said the first phase, announced earlier this year, covered six counties, including parts of Erie County. But Niagara and Orleans were not among them.

Those two counties thus decided to go ahead with plans for Seneca Solutions, a company owned by the Seneca Nation of Indians, to bid for state aid for broadband service in Niagara and Orleans. The tentative plan called for a blend of installing cable and using wireless service to bring high-speed internet to rural areas.

However, Johnson said the state broadband office recently supplied them with information Charter had filed about addresses it didn't intend to serve with the fiber-optic cable necessary for high-speed internet. The maps showed only about 5 percent of Niagara and Orleans counties were being left off Charter's to-do list.

A Charter spokeswoman told The Buffalo News in an email, "Our commitment is designed to maximize broadband access in the counties the New York State Broadband Program Office itself identifies as having the most need in year one, which include Niagara and Orleans counties. We're finalizing our build-out plans in communities within those counties. These plans contain proprietary information and were filed confidentially."

James Denn, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Service, said the four-year, 145,000-customer build-out "is on track and on target. The entire build-out is expected to be completed by May 2020, but likely sooner."

Godfrey and Johnson said they were expecting Seneca Solutions to back away from bidding for state funds.

"Because (Charter) did step up to the plate and did really start to fill out the maps in our two counties to achieve 95 percent, there's really not enough to bid on," Godfrey said.

Godfrey and Johnson said they now intend to lobby Charter at a meeting in mid-December to fill in the unserved 5 percent, applying for state funding if necessary in the next round set for early spring, and move their counties closer to the front of the line for installation of the broadband service.

"We were given the job by the chairmen of our legislatures to cover 100 percent of our counties," Johnson said. "Even though we were thrilled that (Charter) picked up quite a few more homes, our commitment is to that last mile, that last child doing his homework."

The state funding competition was set up to try to fulfill Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's pledge to make high-speed internet service available everywhere in New York by 2020.

Johnson said, "Our work isn't done yet, and this is a four-year project, but we've been encouraged by the New York State Broadband Office, who said, 'Negotiate with (Charter), do this after the merger.'"

Orleans County and the town governments in Niagara County paid for a study that showed in detail where broadband was not available. Godfrey said, "We have a lot to offer because of the work we did before."

The legislators said the counties are willing to discuss expedited permitting for Charter's construction projects as well as access to county emergency radio towers for placement of transmitters for wireless internet service, if needed to provide broadband to the unserved areas.




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