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How good is your broadband service? $670M good?

Credit Xeni Jardin / Some Rights Reserved

New York has commitments for $670 million on extending broadband service to every part of the state to meet a promise by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Sen. Rob Ortt says that is well and good, but he wants to know where money has been spent and where it will be spent.

The North Tonawanda Republican says he just is not seeing new sections of his district receiving better internet service. That is why he has proposed legislation requiring annual reports from Empire State Development Corporation on where the money is being spent and what are the ground rules for deciding where the new service will be. Ortt says taxpayers need to know where the money went.

"Six-hundred-seventy million, if you include the state's $500 million and the $170 million we got from the federal government," Ortt says. "There were a lot of tax dollars that were flipped and the governor has said, "Internet for everybody. Everybody will have internet.' Well, that's not the case. We're not seeing that and those were his promises, not mine, but I voted for that money. A lot of other members did too."

Ortt says the money has not gone into major portions of his district. He says his district includes web "dead zones," where the only internet service is by satellite - particularly in Orleans County and eastern Niagara County.

He says fast internet service has become essential to everything from kids doing their homework to economic development officials promising new businesses they will have high-speed service to run their businesses. Ortt compares the impact of broadband to rural electrification a century ago.

"In the 1930s and even into the early 1940s, but certainly through the '20s and '30s, there were communities that didn't have electricity. They still did not have a grid that powered," Ortt says. "Certainly, as the years went on, into the 20th century, if you didn't have electricity your community was dead. You were literally disconnected."

In March, the governor announced $32.6 million in Round III grants awarded in Western New York. He said the awards would "drive more than $57.3 million of public-private broadband investment and provide 20,211 homes and other locations in the region with access to high-speed internet." Total spent through Round III is "$385.5 million in broadband infrastructure" (to) support connections for nearly 129,000 locations."

He said when the broadband program was launched in 2015, "71 percent of Western New York residents - over 464,000 homes - lacked access to broadband." Towns that benefited from the awards are broken down by county and census block data here.

Jason Conwall, spokesman for Empire State Development, says Ortt is mistaken. He says while awards have been made, the majority of the funding has not yet been disbursed.

“While Senator Ortt is no stranger to political grandstanding, he’s clearly unfamiliar with the facts regarding our broadband efforts. The New NY Broadband Program is not only the largest and most ambitious of its kind in the country, but also one of the most transparent economic development initiatives you will find anywhere, with all projects prominently displayed on our website and a Broadband Availability Map showing current coverage and commitments," said Conwall, in a statement.

“We’re proud of securing commitments for more than 2.4 million locations through the program, which will ensure internet service to all New Yorkers. This initiative will result in 99 percent of New Yorkers having access to download speeds in excess of 100 mbps and there will be a 25 mbps solution for the remaining, most rural areas. For these homes – which, if not for these efforts, would go unserved due to the extremely high cost of bringing broadband to the final 1 percent of homes located in the most rural and remote areas – a dish will be available at a fraction of the standard cost.”

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.
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