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

County legislators widely support idea but want details

Mike Baggerman
March 25, 2019 - 8:28 pm

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz. March 21, 2019 (WBEN Photo/Mike Baggerman)

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (WBEN) – Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz is planning to create an “internet backbone” to pave the way for expanded coverage throughout Erie County, especially in rural areas.

“We have cable in a good portion of Erie County but some of it is very slow,” Poloncarz explained to reporters in a news conference on Monday. “There are portions of Erie County in the southern part…that have no cable access. Verizon has not and has refused to invest in the City of Buffalo and Cheektowaga with fios. It’s too late and we can’t wait anymore.”

The plan? A 360-mile network which would allow internet service providers to latch onto the county infrastructure rather than build its own from scratch. The county would build the infrastructure and private companies would then utilize the “last mile” to bring the fiber optic cables into homes and businesses.

Poloncarz’ internet plan, which he’ll unveil in full on Wednesday in his annual State of the County address, will not only address the current lack of fios in rural areas, but it will also allow Erie County to get ahead on future technologies such as 5G.

“(5G) doesn’t work unless you have the main lines,” Poloncarz added. “Our plan is to build this $20 million bond to be issued to the people of Erie County. We can then lease the lines, lease the access, and make money off it.”

He expects it to begin generating revenues for the county in five or six years.

Around the country, places like Chattanooga, Tennessee and Fort Collins, Colorado, already implemented programs of their own. Just recently, 17 counties in Tennessee received broadband services after a $15 million grant was signed by its governor.

Multiple Erie County legislators support the county executive’s position, including Tim Meyers, who sponsored a resolution which pushed the county executive to take measures to address the digital divide and digital deserts in Erie County.

“It’s going to help everybody,” Meyers said. “It’s going to help with education and business. We have to get it, if not, from a business standpoint, we’re going to be left behind.”

Even the county executive’s most prominent opponent in the legislature, Minority Leader Joe Lorigo, supports the measure.

“I think it’s a great idea,” Lorigo said. “The areas I represent, a lot of them are underserved when it comes to high-speed internet. To get something out there to them that would be helpful, I’m certainly interested in.”

But Lorigo also has questions concerning its cost, design, or planning phase.

“I’m eager to hear what the plan actually is,” Lorigo said.

Fellow member of the republican caucus, Ed Rath, also supports the initiative but wants to know how the county will carry out their plan. He’s also curious to know how internet service providers will respond to the “last mile” initiative.

“If you’re a business in the southern part of Erie County, you can’t even get fast cable,” Poloncarz said. “You’re lucky if you can get cable. You’re not going to place a business where you can’t even get internet access.”

With some municipalities across the country opting to take it another step further and add its own internet service as another option for residents, Poloncarz said the “middle mile” needs to be finished first.

“We believe that there is internet service providers that want to do the final mile,” Poloncarz said. “We believe that will attract others. Before committing to a huge, $100 million-plus (project), which I don’t think we’re going to need, we’re committing to the $20 million to do the 360 mile fiber network which will connect all towns, the cities of Buffalo, Lackawanna, and Tonawanda, and connect between governmental offices.”

Poloncarz hopes to have the conversation begin with the legislature soon but said that no sort of construction will likely take place this year. He hopes to have $20 million of borrowing be approved this summer with construction to begin next year and the 360 miles of added infrastructure to be in place by 2021.

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