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Rural Broadband: Erie Net to connect those with lackluster service

It's been a year since County Executive Mark Poloncarz announced this $20M project, so where does it stand today?

ERIE COUNTY, N.Y. —

In 2019, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz announced Erie Net to tackle the issue of inconsistent broadband service in the rural areas of the county.

"It's going to take somebody like us to do it, we've waited long enough," Poloncarz told 2 On Your Side. "I'm sick of calling on Verizon to increase coverage and I'm sick of calling on Spectrum to do a better job."

Erie Net is a 360-mile fiber network that would bring high-speed broadband to the county. To be clear, Erie County is not getting in the business of becoming an internet service provider

Erie County broadband projects only received $622,309 from the New York State Broadband Program. With Buffalo and its surrounding suburbs mostly connected, broadband program awards weren’t available, or companies believed the projects wouldn’t be profitable. But, that doesn’t mean that a need wasn’t there. 

Credit: WGRZ

"We have an opportunity to deliver a high-speed fiber network to all very county by bringing it to every town," Poloncarz said. "Ensuring that there are no excuses in the future,”

The Erie Net plan enables the county to lay fiber cables across the county, mainly along main thoroughfares. Then, ideally, other service providers would tap into those lines, lease access to them and connect homes to their network. The service providers call this the "last mile." 

Erie County is basing its network on a similar system that is connecting parts of the southern tier in and around Elmira.

But will service providers actually use the Erie Net system? It depends on who you ask. 

2 On Your Side reached out to both Verizon and Charter to see if they would actually build out from a county-owned fiber system. But only Charter Communications responded and would not directly answer the question. 

It's been roughly a year since the county executive announced Erie Net during his state of the county address and questions of its progress are being asked by the public and lawmakers.  

“We've been working, sort of behind the scenes on putting together the mechanics of how we would do this from a legal standpoint," Poloncarz said. "I put a $250,000 in the 2020 budget which was approved by the legislature which is to now design it from a technical standpoint”

Poloncarz said a corporation needs to be established to operate Erie Net. Once the corporation is established, crews can begin laying fiber. 

"2021 would be the year in which we would borrow up to approximately $20 million to actually lay the cable, lay the fiber all across our county," the County Executive said.

Credit: WGRZ
Erie Net is projected to cost at least $20 million. The county will need to borrow that money.

Erie County Legislator Joseph Lorigo spoke to 2 On Your Side about the project and expressed frustration with the lack of information coming from the county executive's office. He is, however, supportive of the project.

"If the numbers work out, if it's not something that is astronomically expensive, and is going to generate some sort of level of return, then yeah," Lorigo said. "Unfortunately, all I've heard so far are the failure stories of other municipal broadband initiatives that have cost, you know, their municipalities 10's of millions of dollars and got nowhere."

Erie Net is projected to cost $20 million to build. The county will need to borrow that money to build out the project, but Poloncarz believes the fees the county charges for access to the network will more than pay for itself and by reducing their own internet bill. 

"We can then use for our own purposes. Every county spends about a million dollars annually just for Internet service, we would be able to reduce that cost," Poloncarz said. "There would be some costs, of course, involved with regards to running the open-access network, but we believe we'd be able to offset that."

Credit: WGRZ
A timeline of the Erie Net project

But the county executive just announced a new convention center that will have a price tag north of $400 million. Additionally, there is uncertainty about New Era field and what Erie County will be on the hook for if new renovations, or a new stadium, is needed.  Legislator Lorrigo has concerns about potentially big spending projects in the coming years that would see the county borrowing hundreds of millions to finish. 

"We need to have a public conversation with both the administration, public businesses that would be doing this sort of work and the consultants at the county executive plans to use to see whether or not this is even feasible," Lorigo said.

But access to broadband is a unifying issue for both Republicans and Democrats in the county. Lorigo says as long as the math works he and his partners in government are supportive. 

If executed efficiently, Erie Net could be another economic driver in the county's tool belt when the switch is eventually flipped.

"If you don't have a state-of-the-art fiber, if you don't have the highest speeds, a company will not go to that location," Poloncarz said. "So there are certain locations in Erie County that they'll be like 'hey, that's great, what can I do with regards to high-speed internet?' and the answer is you don't have a whole lot of choice, they won't go there.”

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