BUFFALO, N.Y. — Erie County is getting closer to putting shovels in the ground, or buckets in the sky, to deploy fiber-optic cable across 400 miles of the county.
The ErieNET Local Development Corporation [LDC] was formed on Monday, along with the appointment of seven directors to the board.
"Every community will have access," said Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz. "We expect when all is said and done that all areas very county are within a couple of years to have access to high-speed internet, that that can be tapped into."
Poloncarz said it's possible that the ErieNET LDC will begin deploying fiber in the coming months, but the bulk of the work will be conducted throughout 2023.
ErieNET will criss-cross the county connecting over 150 anchor institutions and almost every municipality. Wales, one of the most remote areas of the county, is not getting connected to the project.
At one point, the pandemic put the ErieNET on the back burner of Poloncarz's agenda. Facing fiscal crisis due to so much getting shut down, the county announced it was moving on back in late 2020.
Then the American Rescue Plan took effect and the county was able to allocate the necessary funds to move forward.
"We had already set aside a little bit of money from Erie County for the development of this, but the actual construction of hearing at the laying of the fiber is being paid for by the American Rescue Plan," Poloncarz said. "You can also use money from the American rescue plan for sewer water projects and high-speed broadband internet, and that's exactly what this is."
But not everyone on the ErieNET LDC board thinks this was the best use of the funds provided. Erie County legislator Joseph Lorigo is a member of the LDC board.
"We've heard from internet service providers that could have used that funding to expand their networks, I think that might have been a better use of our funds," said Lorigo. "But right now, we're looking at sort of creating a new utility."
The projected budget for building ErieNET has nearly doubled since it was proposed in 2019. At the time, it was estimated to cost around $20M to build the 400-mile fiber network. Today the projected cost is $36M, and that's assuming demands on the supply chain, or inflation, cause the price tag to balloon further.
"The only positive thing that I can say is that I do have a seat at the table," Lorigo said. "I can keep a closer eye on what's happening, and hopefully steer things in a direction that I think could be most beneficial to Erie County residents."
Lorigo says he isn't against connecting people to broadband, he just feels the project could have been different had the legislature been involved. He's also waiting to see a plan for how the county plans to make money with this new utility.
"I need to see a business plan that not only respects taxpayers but also shows that this is something that people want, will use, and will eventually be able to sustain itself without the additional county taxpayer funding that I believe is going to be required," Lorigo said.
It's unclear what the next steps are, now that the ErieNET LDC has been formed and directors appointed. During the meeting, it was discussed that the LDC will begin hiring staff.
County Executive Poloncarz says it's possible that fiber could be deployed in 2022, it's likely that construction will begin in 2023 with homes getting connected in 2024.
But first, the county needs to find partners that want to tap into the fiber that the county is installing.
Currently, no providers have publicly announced they plan to tap into the ErieNET system. In the past, sources at Charter and Verizon have told 2 On Your Side that there isn't interest. It's likely that smaller providers like Greenlight Networks could use the system, but the company has not announced plans publicly.
Poloncarz did provide a little insight on Monday about one provider that has engaged with the county about using ErieNET.
"We've had great conversations already with final mile providers, as was discussed today, Google Fiber wants to co-locate with us," Poloncarz said. "We think that this is going to be one of the true assets for our community."
A spokesperson for Google Fiber confirmed conversations with Erie County, but could not provide any further details.