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A Deeper Look at the County Executive's "ErieNet" Proposal

"Most of the community networks have paid for themselves."

March 25, 2019 - 11:16 pm
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ERIE COUNTY (WBEN - Brendan Keany) - Wilson, North Carolina, is a city that uses a government-owned fiber-optics system to drive much of their economy. 

READ:  Poloncarz proposes high-speed internet access across rural parts of Erie County

"I've talked to residents who specifically moved to our city because of Greenlight, especially people who are telecommuting and working from home who want to have access to high-speed broadband," said Brie Handgraaf, a reporter for the Wilson Times. "I work with economic development, and we've had numerous companies that have specifically located here because of the broadband."

Listen to the full conversation with Handgraaf below:

Now, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz is proposing a similar system.

Poloncarz is proposing a county-owned fiber-optics network that would directly connect to schools and government buildings, while also creating the necessary infrastructure for local service providers to build out to county residents.

There are a couple of things that make the county executive's plan unique when compared to other places around the country that have invested in community-based Internet. The first is that is really hasn't been done on the scale of a full county, especially one the size of Erie. Secondly, it's rare for a similar project to not directly link to residential homes.

"It's worth noting that in most of the places we've seen this, it has actually been more of a local government than the county government...it's usually been a city or town," said Chris Mitchell, who works for the Institute for Local Self Reliance. "Examples of building the network through the streets but not connecting homes are few and far between. We have not seen any situation in which a big cable or telephone company has used a network like that to connect homes."

Mitchell does think the proposed system from Poloncarz, which he will reveal more details about in his State of the County Address on Wednesday, would bring some more investment into the region, but he's not positive that creating infrastructure that will allow local service providers to "go the extra mile" would actually generate more competition to get it done.

"This is a kind of investment from the county that I think will result in some more investment but may not get us to that endpoint that we want to get to," said Mitchell. "I think this kind of network could result in more investment but not the kind of robust competition that many if us would like to see. That's not to say we couldn't see a local or regional cable or telephone company building on the network to connect homes, but I would not expect to see multiple companies connecting the same homes over that network."

Regardless, Mitchell noted that communities that have made the shift to a similar type of government network generally see positive results.

"The return of investment has generally been quite good if you do a whole cost accounting," he said. "Most of the community networks have paid for themselves, and that's been the goal; they haven't really produced profits or net income, but their goals were to create new jobs or to retain existing jobs to create more reasonable pricing and price discipline among providers in the market, to improve customer service and those sorts of things. So, the networks have generally met their goals."

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