(TNS) – Federal stimulus aid being distributed to communities to improve the country’s infrastructure is not just about roads, bridges and sewers.
The money is also essential to reinvigorate Erie County’s plan to expand high-speed broadband Internet service to every corner of the county.
Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz first announced a $20 million ErieNET initiative in the spring of 2019, hoping the full open-access network could be built by the end of 2021. But Covid-19 has delayed business and design planning.
Now the county has finally released a draft business plan for a new $29 million network that would lay hundreds of miles of fiber optic lines from as far north as Newstead and Grand Island south to ‘at Collins and Concord.
“We’re ahead on that, by a large measure, of most counties,” said Deputy Budget Director Benjamin Swanekamp, who helps coordinate the ErieNET effort.
While the region’s wealthier suburban communities have high-quality networks with fast download speeds, much of Buffalo and rural southern and eastern towns do not. This digital divide became even more pronounced when schools switched to remote learning in 2020 due to Covid and found that many students did not have reliable internet access to participate in lessons.
According to the draft business plan, developed by ECC Technologies in Rochester, ErieNET would offer:
—A “backbone” route that would lay approximately 400 miles of cable, linking nearly every town in Erie County.
—152 “flagship” locations, ranging from municipal facilities and sewage works to libraries, business parks and public safety access points. Three sites in downtown Buffalo would serve as the main servers and equipment centers for the network.
—Marketing to private companies and small ISPs, who would lease the network and generate revenue.
— $7.7 million in federal stimulus funds to keep ErieNET financially afloat for the first five years, in addition to $29 million to build it.
Given the supply chain issues and bureaucracy to get ErieNET off the ground – since many miles of fiber have to be hung from existing utility poles – the network is not expected to be completed until 2025, although the network must be “essentially complete” and ready to go by 2024, said Matt Crider, partner and vice president of ECC Technologies.
Since the concept of ErieNET was first launched, many have called it progressive, ambitious and risky.
The ErieNET plan would make Erie County one of the largest municipalities in the nation to operate this type of network, which relies on local internet service providers to establish home connections and resell broadband access. to consumers. Local businesses could also contract with the county to provide direct fiber optic connections for private and business use.
The Network Map Project has over 400 public facilities within half a mile of the ErieNET backbone. ECC Technologies assumes that 40% of them would subscribe to the network. The business plan assumes that each year 4% of new private businesses located within half a mile of ErieNET lines will subscribe to the county network. That’s out of nearly 2,000 potential private sector companies.
One of ErieNET’s primary goals is to attract private Internet service providers who would lease the open network and establish “last mile” service connections to homes.
Major local ISPs 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. . Many cities have also signed letters of intent to join a departmental network.
The City of Buffalo and the University at Buffalo have expressed interest in connecting to ErieNET but have not yet committed to participate. The current map has about a quarter of all ErieNET lines operating in the city, Crider said.
The first phase would not reach all towns in Erie County.
The city of Wales, for example, would not receive any free Internet connection as part of the initial network.
ErieNET officials said Wales and other communities in southern Erie County would likely be part of a 54-mile extension of the fiber optic network in a second phase of the plan as funding would become available. City of Wales officials have not yet signed a letter of intent to participate in ErieNET, Swanekamp said.
As noted earlier, other municipalities in the past have invested heavily in their fiber backbones only to find that private providers are not interested in running the “last mile”. As many as 30 cities and counties have ended up building their own home connections, which can cost millions, while no provider has stepped in to do so.
Erie County’s financial risk, however, is being mitigated by the influx of funds from the US bailout, which is expected to limit the county’s borrowing construction costs to $2.7 million.
The business plan also expects ErieNET to operate at a loss for its first five years of operation, as it covers legal, administrative, maintenance and marketing costs.
“We are confident the model is sustainable,” Crider said. “That doesn’t mean there is no risk. There is risk in every business venture.”
ECC Technologies has had success with other projects.
About 12 years ago, ECC Technologies helped launch the Southern Tier Network which initially sent about 500 miles of fiber through Chemung, Schuyler and Stueben counties, Crider said. This network is not only self-contained, but has since expanded to include eight counties.
Swanekamp said that even though the timeframe to complete ErieNET is longer than expected, the demand for high-speed data will only increase, especially as 5G ultra-wideband technology comes online.
“Over time, people’s data needs will continue to grow, grow, grow, grow, grow,” he said. “We are in an information economy.”