(TNS) — Local broadband expansion advocates say U.S. Rep. Chris Collins’ new bill to create a federal registry of communication infrastructure will help bring high-speed Internet to the most rural corners of New York's Niagara and Orleans counties.
The registry outlined in the Clarence Republican’s bill would be available to communications providers and include a description of assets in an area, their location and a point of contact from each agency to provide more information on such assets.
Niagara County Legislator David Godfrey, R-Burt, said such a registry would entice the small vendors whom he believes are crucial to providing Internet service in the county’s remaining unserved areas.
“It (creates) competition, and I think competition is good,” Godfrey said.
Spectrum Internet — formed by the Time Warner Cable-Charter Communications merger in 2016 — agreed to significantly boost Internet speeds upstate and also expand broadband service to 145,000 residential units that currently don’t have it, as a condition of its merger. In Niagara and Orleans counties, Spectrum pledged to expand broadband to 95 percent of residential units.
That would leave about more than 1,000 households in Orleans and Niagara County without high-speed Internet, including swaths of the towns of Lockport, Lewiston, Wilson, Somerset, Hartland and Royalton.
To reach those final households, Godfrey says small vendors will need to come in with alternative approaches.
Godfrey and Orleans County Legislator Lynne Johnson, R-Yates, have floated several possible alternatives to entice vendors to put in bids. One is to push Spectrum to allow a wireless Internet vendor to tap into the company’s existing fiber optic cable lines and bring WiFi to unserved households.
Another is to include the counties in Genesee County’s request for proposals. The two have been in contact with Genesee County leaders, asking them to tell prospective vendors about the work opportunities to the north and northwest.
“At the end of the day, I don’t see it being economically feasible for the Spectrums of the word to build out that last mile,” Godfrey said.
Godfrey also praised Federal Communications Commissioner Chairman Ajit Pai’s pledge to provide $500 million to small carriers to expand broadband in rural areas. Combined with the Collins-backed registry of communications assets, he believes they’ll be able to attract those small vendors needed to expand high-speed Internet to every last household in the region.
“What Collins and Pai are doing is opening the door to the small vendors,” Godfrey said. “I think it’s not only the best way it’s going to be done, but the only way.”
Godfrey and Johnson also say they’re frustrated with the pace of Spectrum’s build-out in their counties.
“We don’t see any progress in the rural areas,” Godfrey said.
Spectrum says their build-out is ahead of schedule, having expanded broadband service to more than 42,000 homes and businesses between January 2016 and mid-December 2017, exceeding their commitment by 6,000.
In a Jan. 8, 2018 report to the New York Public Service Commission, Spectrum says it has expanded broadband to 669 users in Niagara County, but states those are focused in the “City of Niagara” (sic) and towns of Wheatfield, Lewiston and Pendleton.
“We’re obviously interested in bringing as many people as we can into our network,” said Spectrum spokeswoman Lara Pritchard.
Johnson criticized Spectrum, saying the company was mostly expanding in rural areas, where more infrastructure is available and users live closer together.
“They’re just picking the low-hanging fruit,” Johnson said. “We’re nowhere near the percentages we had hoped for.”
Broadband advocates say lack of high-speed internet has presented problems with operating businesses, seeking education and doing homework, and more basic tasks, such as communicating and shopping.
“It’s stifled development,” Johnson said.
Collins added high-speed internet is also crucial for public safety.
“We need to think about things like public safety, making sure law enforcement has the ability to receive notification of an emergency and quickly respond,” Collins said in a statement. “Our communities need broadband internet access to stay connected, and I am confident we are taking steps in the right direction.”
Collins added that 65 percent of his largely-rural district is underserved by broadband, and that 3 percent is completely unserved.
“Broadband access is important to our rural communities as our reliance on the Internet continues to grow for education, starting and administrating a business, receiving care from a doctor, or just plain shopping,” Collins said.
The legislation was introduced Jan. 16 and went to the House’s Transportation and Infrastructure committee and Energy and Commerce committee.
Collins sits on the Energy and Commerce Committee Subcommittee on Communications and Technology. In the coming weeks, that subcommittee will hold hearings to discuss ways to remove barriers to infrastructure buildout and support innovation.
Godfrey and Johnson say they’ll continue to push for broadband until every home in the counties is served — a goal that, with Collins and Pai’s proposals, now appears more in reach.
“We will press forward until that goal is met. With Congressman Collins behind us, we have a better edge to meeting that goal,” Johnson said.
©2018 the Niagara Gazette (Niagara Falls, N.Y.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.