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Poloncarz wants to close county's digital divide with $20M high-speed network

County Executive Mark Poloncarz says he's done waiting for private corporations to close the digital divide in Erie County, which has left thousands of residents in underserved communities with low-quality or nonexistent internet access.

So, Poloncarz wants the county to borrow $20 million to lay down roughly 360 miles of fiber lines – enough to bring high-speed internet access to every town and city in Erie County, from Grand Island to Sardinia and from the West Side to the East Side of Buffalo.

A preliminary map crisscrossed with bright purple lines shows how a new county-owned network would directly connect schools, libraries and government buildings. It would also create a backbone that local internet service providers could tap into for the build out of "the last mile" to residential homes, he said. Businesses and employers that are willing to pay for a direct connection would also be hooked up to the county network.

"In the new Erie County, we’re not leaving anybody behind," said Poloncarz, who will formally roll out his ErieNet initiative during Wednesday's State of the County address at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

The plan would make Erie County one of the largest municipalities in the country to operate this type of network, which relies on local internet providers to build out home connections and resell high-speed access to consumers. Local connectivity advocates say the plan could vastly improve access in underserved areas and lower internet prices across the board – though some also expressed skepticism about small providers’ capacity to build out thousands of individual connections.

“It’s one of the most progressive ideas I’ve seen in local politics in a long time,” said Sanjay Gilani, who recently retired as the chief technology officer at Buffalo Public Schools. If the county successfully implements its plan, he added, it would be a “game changer.”

A county-owned broadband network could potentially extend cutting-edge infrastructure to communities that major service providers have overlooked because they are unprofitable, said local telecom attorney Martha Buyer. Those areas include rural communities, such as Alden, Collins and Marilla, as well as Buffalo.

Western New York's internet speeds rank among the country’s slowest. The example of Chattanooga, Tenn., shows one way to change that.

Poloncarz will also use his State of the County address to propose a new "dig once" policy that will enable private communications companies to lay their own lines in conduits running alongside active county road and sewer construction projects. He is also pushing for county regulations to guide the installation of 5G networks, the newest wave in wireless communication.

"Otherwise it will be the Wild West," he said. "Local municipalities have no say, but the county does. This is a big issue nationwide."

Closing the digital divide

The Buffalo News reported last month that internet speeds in Buffalo and Erie County are among the slowest in the country. Of the 10 wired internet providers that operate in the Buffalo Niagara region, only Spectrum offers broadband throughout Buffalo. And its average speeds fall below benchmarks elsewhere, according to speed-testing services.

While wealthier suburban communities in the region have high-grade networks with superfast download speeds, most of Buffalo and rural towns to the south and east do not. That gap – along with December census data that showed more than half of households lack internet in pockets of Buffalo, Lockport and Niagara Falls – have alarmed local educators and politicians, who say students and adults need home internet to be successful.

"I think if the county is willing to step in and invest in this, it serves everyone," Buyer said.  

Backers also predict the new infrastructure plan may enable small, local providers to enter a market long dominated by Verizon and Spectrum, potentially driving prices down. The plan mirrors similar initiatives in southern Virginia, Washington State and the Southern Tier, where local governments have covered the high up-front costs of building a regional fiber backbone and then turned over deployment to private service providers.

In the Southern Tier, for instance, local internet provider Empire Access has built a large residential fiber network off the Southern Tier Network, a government-owned backbone. Through it, the company now offers download speeds of up to 1 gigabit for $65 per month in cities like Corning and Elmira.

By comparison, Spectrum charges the same rate for its most basic internet package, which promises top speeds one-tenth as fast as the gigabit plan. The internet giant dropped the local price of some packages after Empire Access entered the market, said Jim Baase, chief financial officer of Empire Access.

Empire Access now hopes to use the proposed Erie County backbone to expand west, though it has made no formal commitment to that effect.

“Once Erie County builds out its network, we would contract with them to get around Erie County and then build out in the communities,” Baase said. “We would go into a community like the city of Buffalo and add fiber up and down virtually every street. It’s a large project.”

Major hurdles

But the Southern Tier is one of the few unqualified success stories for this particular model of broadband access, cautions Christopher Mitchell, the director of the community broadband initiative at the national policy group Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

Other municipalities have invested heavily in their fiber backbones only to find private providers aren’t interested in going the “last mile.” As many as 30 cities and counties have ended up building their own home connections, which can cost millions, when no providers stepped in to do it.

“The cost is incredible,” said Sam Marrazzo, the chief innovation officer at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. “I don’t see how it could be done. Unless [a small provider] has deep pockets or access to other funding … At the end of the day, it would be very costly to run that infrastructure.”

Marrazzo said he would prefer to see the county partner with incumbent players on a long-term solution to the region’s connectivity problems. And he expressed concerns about the county’s plans to regulate the small-cell wireless towers that mobile internet providers will one day use to deploy 5G internet, particularly since Buffalo has already passed an ordinance assessing fees on the cells. The county's proposed regulations would also assess a yet-unspecified licensing fee, according to draft legislation, as well as require providers to meet a range of tower design and location specifications.

Timeline and costs

Poloncarz said his goal is for the county to begin connecting lines by 2020 and bring the latest communication speeds to all parts of the county by 2021. To do that, he will need approval from the Erie County Legislature to borrow the money, and approval from the City of Buffalo to lay down lines within the city limits.

"The city could do it, but it’s only for the city," he said. "We have this big infrastructure – the county roads. We own and control it. We’re the logical choice. We would need to get permission in the city, but I can’t see why the city would reject it if the county is willing to invest the money to do it."

Though the county would have to make the initial outlay of money to create the government-owned fiber network and spend $1 million a year to maintain it, he said, the county would eventually see a return on its investment through the leasing of its lines to private businesses and service providers. County Chief Information Officer Michael Breeden said he anticipates the county would make back its investment in five to six years after the network is up and running, based on a consultant's report.

The typical timeline for this type of project to become budget-neutral is 20 years, said Ernesto Falcon, a lawyer for Electronic Frontier Foundation, a national digital rights group.

The ErieNet proposal is based off a study completed by the Rochester area-based ECC Technologies in 2017. Vice President Matthew Crider said the company had a broadband designer drive all the major arterials in Erie County over a two-week period, focusing primarily on more rural areas that aren't major population hubs.

They also studied maps from internet service providers that were willing to share the information about where fiber optic cables exist now.

"That kind of told us where are the areas that are critically underserved, where there is very little infrastructure," Crider said.

The hard work ahead will be finalizing the preliminary design for ErieNet and finding a way to make it sustainable, he said.

"That’s why it's important to have these carriers as partners," he said. "If you really want to get Erie County on par with some other major metropolitan areas in the country, that infrastructure has to get built one way or another."

As Buffalo's internet speeds rank among slowest in U.S., consumers can't do much

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