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The Editorial Board: As ErieNet gathers steam, the county must ensure it reaches unserved homes

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With federal assistance, Erie County is moving ahead with its plan to provide broadband internet to unserved parts of the county. But last-mile connections remain a concern.

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Among the risks of ErieNet – Erie County’s ambitious effort to expand broadband internet to areas without it – is gaining the cooperation of companies that will build out the necessary “last mile” connections. There seems to be some iffyness about that but, one way or another, it’s a reluctance that needs to be overcome.

The good news is that the $29 million project is moving ahead, thanks in part to federal stimulus dollars that will not only help build the network, but keep it financially afloat for its first five years.

A new draft business plan details a network that will lay hundreds of miles of fiber optic lines stretching from the towns of Newstead and Grand Island south to Collins and Concord. It’s an important undertaking, but one that has bedeviled other areas that have tried it. Up to 30 cities and counties have ended up building their own home connections when no providers were willing to do it. The cost can run into the millions of dollars.

Erie County has advantages. Not only do the federal stimulus dollars limit the costs of local taxpayers, but its private sector partner has successfully built out a similar project in New York’s Southern Tier. About 12 years ago, ECC Technologies of Rochester helped launch the Southern Tier Network in Chemung, Schuyler and Stueben counties. Unlike some similar efforts, the Southern Tier Network has been self-sustaining and it has grown, now covering eight counties.

The Covid-19 pandemic exploded any lingering idea that broadband internet access was an optional service. Those who had it were able to take advantage of remote schooling for their children. They were able to register for unemployment, limit the stresses of isolation and, perhaps most critically, schedule appointments for Covid vaccinations. The personal and social costs of lack of service can be crippling. Yet, the big internet companies are showing little interest in helping with this, though smaller ones and the targeted towns are on board.

That gets to the fundamental truth that internet companies and governments – including Albany – need to absorb. In the end, delivering this service can’t be an option. Broadband needs to be treated more like electric service than like cable television.

Whether that’s accomplished with the carrot or the stick – or some combination – is the question.

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"It's going to focus on issues of resilience," Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz told The Buffalo News about his State of the County address. "The county, in itself, cannot solve the issues that are politicizing and creating divisiveness, but hopefully, we can do things to help bring the community together."

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