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Erie County Approves Public Corporation for Broadband Oversight

The county Legislature recently approved plans to create a county-controlled organization to oversee and manage a $20 million, county-sponsored fiber-optic network called ErieNet.

(TNS) — It's taken a while, but Erie County, N.Y., Executive Mark Poloncarz's plan to bring high-speed internet to all parts of the county is starting to gain traction once again.

The Erie County Legislature recently approved plans to establish a new, county-controlled corporation to oversee and manage the creation of ErieNet, an ambitious county-sponsored fiber-optic network that could give all cities, towns and interested internet service providers unparalleled access to up to 500 miles of untapped fiber-optic lines.

The vision remains to provide high-speed, cutting-edge connectivity throughout the county, not just in the wealthier suburbs. The goal is a new network that could level the economic development playing field by offering super-fast speeds to poorer cities and to rural towns to the south and east that currently suffer from a distinct connectivity disadvantage.

Poloncarz first announced a $20 million ErieNet initiative in the spring of 2019, with hopes that the full network could be built by the end of 2021. Nearly three years later, there is still no shovel in the ground. Business and design planning was delayed by Covid-19. Business planning has now restarted, though detailed network mapping is still months away.

Major work is now expected to move forward, thanks to a second windfall of American Rescue Plan money that Erie County will receive this year. Poloncarz has pledged to use that $34 million in federal funds to get ErieNet jump-started again, with hopes of starting to lay fiber-optic cable before year's end.

The current ErieNet plan is for a more ambitious network than first proposed. Initially, Poloncarz said the county would lay roughly 360 miles of fiber-optic lines that would then be leased to public and private entities. But that was before federal stimulus aid was available. Now, county leaders are talking about an even larger network involving the laying of 400 to 500 miles of fiber.

This would make Erie County one of the largest municipalities in the country to operate this type of backbone network, which could be leased by private internet service providers, individual companies, public institutions and local governments.

To get that ball rolling, the Poloncarz administration requested that the County Legislature approve the creation of a local development corporation, with a board composed of elected and appointed county officials. This county-controlled, nonprofit corporation would administer and maintain ErieNet and market the program to interested users, who would be allowed to lease the county network. The board would provide governance and approve policies.

Officials from the County Legislature, the library system, the county budget office and the information technology and planning departments would serve as initial members, but the board would grow as stakeholders sign on to use the network, county officials and consultants said. The board would also be subject to open meetings and transparency laws as a quasi-governmental agency.

"It's open and transparent, but it's more nimble," said Robert Murray, the outside lawyer working on the county's behalf regarding ErieNet.

The local development corporation would be tax exempt and be better positioned to deal with regulatory issues, added Deputy Budget Director Benjamin Swanekamp.

The Legislature voted 7-4, along party lines, to support the creation of the new corporate entity, with the Republican-supported minority — which has long advocated for more rural access to broadband — objecting to the creation of a new layer of county bureaucracy before more concrete details are shared about where fiber lines will be laid.

"Without knowing more information about the actual project or the long-term implications of the LDC, I cannot, in good conscience, vote yes," said Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo.

Buffalo district Legislator Howard Johnson, meanwhile, pointed out that Spectrum is the only game in town for most high-speed internet users in Buffalo.

"We need competition," he said.

Matt Crider, vice president with ECC Technologies, based in Rochester, said the county would focus on a "middle-mile network," drawing lines from Buffalo's city center out like skeleton frame to all parts of the county, but not connecting service lines directly to residents' homes.

The new network would connect county-owned facilities, libraries and 911 call centers. It could also be available to connect other local governments, schools, colleges and hospitals, based on their interest, Crider said. The county would also lay the network across major economic development corridors and development zones to make those areas more attractive to businesses.

Major businesses in the county could also request direct access to the network.

A key goal of ErieNet is to attract private internet service providers who would be willing and able to build out "last mile" service connections to people's homes if they could lease the countywide network.

Major, local internet providers like Spectrum, Charter and Verizon have expressed no interest in partnering with Erie County, but smaller providers like Empire, Greenlight and Armstrong have, officials said. Numerous towns have also expressed interest in hooking into a county network.

There are still many hurdles to overcome associated with ErieNet, including the immense cost to maintain such a major network and the lack of assurance that private businesses will step in to enable to network to eventually break even.

Michael Santorelli, director of the Advanced Communications Law and Policy Institute at New York Law School was among those recommending the County Legislature proceed with caution. He pointed out that ErieNet is being designed based off of assumptions ECC Technologies made in a study produced four years ago.

Since that time, access to high-speed internet has expanded considerably, he said, so subscriptions to ErieNet alone are unlikely to be enough to financially sustain the network. Publicly built networks in other states have struggled to find partnerships with private internet service providers or been beset by cost overruns.

"So is the market viable for this new entrant into the marketplace?" Santorelli asked.

Andy Lukasiewicz, ECC Technologies director of broadband services, said Santorelli's concerns are being taken into account.

"When we give you the business model, you can be fairly confident that it's either going to be sustainable, or we're going to tell you it's not," he said.

The business plan is expected to be released early this year.

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