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Editorial: Who should do the work of expanding broadband access?

Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz is on to something. Whether he has lighted on the best solution, we’re not sure, but this much is plain: Access to broadband internet is crucial for the economic development of the county. If business won’t do it, government must.

And that’s where the question lies. Spectrum, the county’s most prominent broadband provider, doesn’t reach all of the county. Neither does Verizon nor any other company, leaving large swaths of the county without the service and, as a consequence, without the prospect of significant economic development. It’s like not having telephone service once was.

Presumably, those companies believe they wouldn’t earn a sufficient return on what would be a significant investment, the fundamental concept that drives all private-sector businesses. It’s a problem the country has encountered before and solved through visionary government action.

In the 1820s, New York State built the Erie Canal, causing Buffalo and New York City to boom. Private business wasn’t about to take on that project.

Starting in the 1930s, when the country was imprisoned in the economic dungeon of the Great Depression, Washington began the essential work of bringing electricity to rural America, areas that would otherwise have been left to wither on the vine. It was essential work that not only ensured those areas didn’t fall behind more developed regions, but vastly improved the quality of life.

Washington stepped up again in the 1950s, when President Dwight Eisenhower resolved to knit the country together with a network of high-speed, controlled-access highways that improved transportation to the benefit of businesses and everyday Americans. Who can imagine life without the Interstate Highway system?

Sometimes, government has to do it. The question today is whether Erie County has to take on similar work in providing broadband internet to areas of the county that now lack it. There should be no doubt that someone must, and sooner rather than later.

Poloncarz’s plan is to borrow $20 million to lay about 360 miles of fiber lines that internet providers could use, at a cost, to build out “last-mile” connections to customers. The county executive says companies around the country have expressed interest and he insists the work can be done without creating a new bureaucracy.

The concept has been tried elsewhere, not always successfully. Interestingly, one place it has worked is in the Southern Tier. If it proceeds, Erie County should plan on learning from that project.

But as essential as some projects are, government should rarely be the first choice. Lacking the profit motive, its operation of what amounts to a business is too often unfocused and lackadaisical. Exhibit 1 is the Erie County Water Authority, a semi-public agency that has been serially abused by political leaders for decades.

The question now should be if the private sector can be induced to do the work that Poloncarz correctly identifies as essential to the county’s long-term health. If, instead of borrowing the $20 million, the county offered a grant to a business to build and operate the broadband backbone he envisions, the county might make the best of both worlds.

There is precedent for such an approach. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo lured Tesla and Panasonic to Erie County by building the RiverBend project. If that hasn’t panned out as hoped yet, the fact is that it gave the region a role in the 21st century industry of solar power.

We hope Poloncarz will explore other options before the county commits to this project. But ubiquitous, fast digital access is essential. It is not possible to thrive in the digital age if large areas are left to the dust.

If business cannot or will not take this on, then this is our moment to commit our own local version of building the Erie Canal.

One way or another, it has to happen.

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