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Erie County broadband program gets federal assistance for fiber optic network

Erie County’s long planned broadband internet program is starting to make some important headway. 

It was announced that nearly $180 million in federal infrastructure dollars will be coming to the county to help pay for the installation of the 360 mile fiber optic network known as ErieNet. 

Congressman Brian Higgins, who helped secure the funding, said having access to quality internet has become more far reaching since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

“It's all about economic independence and self sufficiency. And that's what we really want to promote, and give everybody an opportunity to access high speed internet,” Higgins said. “There's a healthcare component to it, there's an education component to it, there's a transportation component to it. There's just generally an economic and life quality component to it.”

ErieNet will be aimed at urban and rural communities, as leaders say they suffer the most from unreliable access to high-speed internet. 

Similar initiatives already exist, including Greenlight Networks, a Rochester-based internet service provider owned by billionaire Tom Golisano. Greenlight expanded to the West Side area of Buffalo after partnering with community organizations, and offers fiber optic service to a neighborhood traditionally left out of internet infrastructure expansions. 

Where ErieNet differs though is in its middle-man nature. The county will lay down and maintain the 360 miles of fiber optic cable, but lease it to internet service providers who will be the ones ultimately providing internet service to subscribers. 

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said the expansion of high speed internet will also hopefully level the playing field in terms of cost and coverage. 

“We will allow for sometimes the first time that anyone will actually have access to high speed broadband,” he said. “And from other areas of Erie County, where high speed broadband already exists, it will allow for competition, which of course will reduce price.”

Laying down the system will require construction on a large network of land. Poloncarz said luckily for Erie County, they own over a thousand miles of it by way of county roads which they can utilize to build the infrastructure under. 

“One of the advantages that Erie County has that the state even doesn't have is the amount of road structure that we own, especially in the southern part of the county, the vast majority of the major routes in the southern part of the county are owned by Erie County,” Poloncarz said. “We can lay the fiber on our own road, we don't need to get a right-of-way from anyone else because we own the land. We don't need to get the approval from the state, nor do we need to get the approval from NYSEG or National Fuel because it's our property.”

Officials hope to start work on ErieNet later this year, or early 2022. 


Ryan Zunner joined WBFO in the summer of 2018 as an intern, before working his way up to reporter the following summer.
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