WILSON, N.Y. - The Town of Wilson is not all that far from the cities. After all, if you're standing on the waterfront on a clear evening, you can easily see the skyline of Toronto, the fifth-largest city in North America.
Buffalo, Niagara Falls and Lockport are all within 50 miles of this Niagara County town, but in Wilson and neighboring rural areas of Niagara and Orleans counties, tens of thousands of people lack a basic 21st-century need.
They don't have high-speed Internet access.
Karen Hoyt, a mother of three boys, lives in nearby Cambria in Niagara County. We encountered her on the Wilson waterfront on Tuesday night, where she was taking a walk with her 10-year-old son.
The Hoyt family knows all about Internet problems. When more than one person in her house tries to use the Internet at the same time, a crisis ensues.
"Sometimes, your computer just stops," Hoyt said. "When my older two boys are trying to do their homework online, and I'm trying to check my email... you just... can't."
Poor broadband access can affect everything from homework to watching Netflix to major economic development projects. Four years ago, a town supervisor in Orleans County complained to the county legislature after a business decided not to locate in a rural area due to the lack of high-speed Internet. In response, the Orleans County Legislature formed an alliance with the Niagara County Legislature, known as the Niagara-Orleans Regional Alliance (NORA).
Their first initiative is a simple mission: bring broadband access to every single home and business in Orleans and Niagara counties.
"We're not even into this decades, as far as competition for small businesses or an agricultural business to grow," NORA co-chair and Orleans County Vice Chair Lynne Johnson said. "We're behind the times. And it's a need, just as much as a utility is, in today's economy."
Johnson and her fellow NORA co-chair, Niagara County legislator David Godfrey, worked to identify the areas of their counties with poor access to broadband. Their survey revealed that nearly 4,000 homes had no access at all. Furthermore, under the state's standards of "high-speed," anywhere between 20,000 and 30,000 homes lacked access.
"We're not economically ready," Godfrey said. "And when you think about getting a job, applying for a job, training for a job, without the Internet, really, those people in the rural areas are deprived from that advantage."
So the alliance acted quickly. Last August, the counties approved the selection of Seneca Solutions and a partner company to build the infrastructure for the project. Although Johnson and Godfrey said they're "shovel-ready," they cannot proceed until the merger between Time Warner Cable and Charter Communications becomes official (that merger will likely get final approval this summer). Under an agreement with the state of New York, the new merged Charter company must expand access into 145,000 homes statewide, but it's unclear where exactly that expansion will take place. Once the company chooses those locations, the alliance in Orleans and Niagara counties will then have a better understanding of where their own project will need to bring access.
At that point, they can apply for funding from the state, which would funnel directly to the vendor. The state has set aside $500 million as a part of an initiative to bring high-speed access to every home by 2018.
"So hopefully, we'll stand here a year from now, and we'll see new towers being built in Orleans and Niagara," Johnson said. "That's our goal."