Bidding Opens in Final Phase of New York Broadband Boost

In the final phase of New York state's $500 million broadband push, local officials hope the Internet service will be brought to every household in Niagara and Orleans counties.

by Tim Fenster, Lockport Union-Sun & Journal / June 9, 2017
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(TNS) —Spectrum Internet has pledged to bring broadband internet to 95 percent of Niagara and Orleans county households. Now, some county legislators are asking: who will bring broadband to the remaining 5 percent?

Bidding opened June 6 for the final phase of the state’s $500 million broadband push, which local officials hope will see broadband internet brought to every last household in the two counties.

Niagara County Legislator David Godfrey, R-Newfane, and Orleans County Legislator Lynne Johnson, R-Ridgeway, say they may need help from outside vendors to get to 100 percent broadband coverage.

“You get to 95-97 percent; what about the group that’s left?” Godfrey said.

But with only 1,020 households expected to remain unserved after Spectrum’s buildout, Godfrey and Johnson worry few vendors will be interested in bidding. The remaining unserved homes will be in areas with low-population densities — rural stretches of Royalton and Somerset, for example.

Godfrey wonders whether vendors will be willing to build infrastructure across miles of country roads to reach, in some cases, only a handful of households.

“There’s got to be vendors to cover it. We’re hoping to get enough vendors,” he said.

The two are looking into 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.

“We don’t have enough homes to get a vendor to bid,” Johnson said. “We’re hoping nearby counties will go out for a (request for proposals), and a vendor will say, ‘While we’re in your neck of the woods, why not bring broadband to these residents.”

Spectrum Internet — formed by the Time Warner Cable-Charter Communications merger in 2016 — grabbed the lion’s share of the bids in the first two rounds of funding because they have the largest footprint in Niagara and Orleans counties.

The New York State Broadband Program Office’s bidding rules favored vendors who could expand broadband at the lowest cost per household. That played into the hands of large companies like Spectrum, which already had the infrastructure in place and could expand at the lowest cost.

“That was devastating,” Godfrey said. “They basically froze census blocks. ... They bid so heavily there was too little left to bid on.”

But as a condition of the merger, the state Public Service Commission required Spectrum to significantly boost internet speeds upstate and also expand broadband service to 145,000 residential units that currently don’t have it. In Niagara and Orleans counties, Spectrum pledged to expand broadband to 95 percent of residential units.

Before the initiative, about 25 percent of Niagara County and 40 percent of Orleans county residential units lacked broadband access, Godfrey said.

Spectrum was given four years to complete the buildout.

Godfrey and Johnson say they have been working with State Sen. Rob Ortt to hold Spectrum’s “feet to the fire,” and that it appears the company has listened. A report to the state Broadband Program showed Spectrum was on track to complete its broadband expansion in the counties by the year’s end, according to Godfrey and Johnson.

“We’re lucky in the fact we’re going to get picked up but it bears the question, who’s controlling us?” Johnson said.

Meantime, the legislators say they are looking at all possible options to expand access, with libraries and schools given top priority. To that end, they are considering a program to bring wireless Internet to all school buses.

Watkins Glen, N.Y., currently has wireless on its school buses, which has allowed students to do their homework during long rural commutes.

The two brought the idea to Dr. Clark Godshall, superintendent of Boards of Cooperative Education Services for Orleans/Niagara, and say he is exploring the idea.

“Anything that brings internet access to our children is a huge step in the right direction,” Johnson said.

They add lack of high-speed Internet is a major problem in the county’s rural areas. Many rural residents have taken to parking outside local libraries to connect with the free wireless internet available there.

“It’s a sad state of affairs,” Johnson said. “You get into rural area, and you can’t hook up.”

©2017 the Lockport Union-Sun & Journal (Lockport, N.Y.), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.