Weekly Feature

2017-02-16 / Business

Erie County officials seeking faster internet speeds for all residents

by TAYLOR NIGRELLI
Reporter

There are few things more infuriating than a slow internet connection. This is especially true in Erie County, where a large swath of the population does not have access to the fastest broadband speeds. A committee of local politicians and officials plan to do something about that.

County Executive Mark Poloncarz and Legislator Patrick Burke are among those who have collaborated on this issue with the county’s broadband committee Both feel that the existing broadband situation is inadequate and is actively harming the county’s potential to bring in new businesses.

“Depending on where you live — the city, the suburbs or the rural area — you might not have access to the highest speeds that are available,” Poloncarz said in a public meeting in December at the Erie County Fire Training Academy in Cheektowaga.

“What I’ve talked about with this for some time now is that actually sets our entire region back. When I am talking to a company from outside this area that is interested in moving here, one of the things they are going to ask is ‘What type of internet speeds do you have?’ You might find out that this limits the locations that the business can go because they are not going to go into a community that does not have high-speed internet.”

Recently, the county commissioned a feasibility study to assess the existing broadband infrastructure and investigate methods of expanding high-speed internet to areas currently deprived of it.

The study, which was conducted by Rochester-based ECC Technologies, set up a website and allowed county residents to find out how fast their internet speed is and what options for broadband service are available. The study was meant as less a definitive guide on how to handle the issue and more of a way to offer several potential solutions.

Matt Crider represented ECC Technologies at the December meeting and laid out why the issues exist and what some possible solutions might be. For example, the New York State Broadband Office has a goal of ensuring 97 percent of the state’s residents have access to 100 megabit broadband by 2018. Megabit is a unit to measure broadband speed.

As of now, Verizon Fios is the only service in Erie County offering that type of speed. Charter Spectrum — previously known as Time Warner Cable — plans to roll out 100 megabit service this year. However, Fios requires a fiber-optic infrastructure, and Verizon has not taken any action towards expansion in recent years. The hope is that Spectrum’s improved service will result in Verizon venturing into new territories.

“The gaps that we are seeing is because Verizon Fios rollout has stalled,” Crider said. “They have no plans of expanding the Fios coverage area. Perhaps that will change if they see Spectrum being more aggressive. Other than that, there’s a very limited number of providers or no providers other than Verizon or Spectrum that offer a true broadband solution. What’s missing is that fiber-optic infrastructure.”

Another solution could be the soon-to-be-available 5G wireless service. However, blanketing the area with that type of coverage would require 10 times as many cellular towers than currently exist. The number of towers required could be reduced via “small cell” technology, however. This would involve putting small wireless transmitters on light and utility poles across the county.

“Some towers will get built, but they’ll also be looking at what we call small cell technology,” Crider said. “It’s exactly what it sounds like. The wireless transmitters are made smaller. They’re approaching zoning boards where they want to put this small cell equipment on light poles, utility poles and buildings because they know it’s not realistic to build out all the towers that are necessary. They’re looking to bring that service to the neighborhoods. That small cell equipment is very often back fed by fiber optic.”

The presentation was far from conclusive. Crider urged the county to keep the broadband committee together and expand its scope as a means of bringing high-speed internet to all parts of Erie County.

Crider said it was the right thing to do to form the committee, and he would suggest that it be kept together and maybe expanded to include some other municipal partners such as the state Department of Transportation and the University at Buffalo.

He said the committee should look for opportunities to collaborate to improve broadband services across the county.

email: tnigrelli@beenews.com

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