Niagara Gazette

October 13, 2012

Rural broadband survey funds sought

By Jim Krencik
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — RIDGEWAY — The effort to pursue state funding for a study broadband Internet accessibility in rural areas in Orleans and Niagara counties is moving forward despite roadblocks encountered by the municipal officials and technology experts behind the push.

A group representing both counties has applied for a $250,000 from the $25 million Connect NY Broadband Grant Program to complete a door-to-door survey of residents in areas that are unserved and underserved by high-speed internet services.

Ridgeway Town Supervisor Brian Napoli and other local officials attended an information session held last month by the state’s Broadband Program Office. Napoli said it a “frustrating” experience, as the initial response was that funding is only available for projects that are shovel-ready.

”We’re asking for money for the study, but they said the grant is only for building (broadband infrastructure),” Napoli said. “They have to see if they can fund the study ... we’re waiting for a legal definition.”

Undeterred, the group still applied for grant funding before the Broadband Office’s Oct. 5 deadline.

”The worst answer we could get is ‘no’ ,” said IT professional Evhen Tupis, a Clarendon resident volunteering to assist the effort. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

Tupis, a principal for BP Greene and Associates, believes that much could be gained from the survey, which he said will better measure broadband availability and interest, and in turn provide an enticement for infrastructure investments.

”The idea is to do the heavy lifting with the market study, and then use the intelligence from that study to find the most cost-effective and sustainable way to provide service,” said Tupis, who added that there should be no cost to taxpayers. “The last thing we want to do is invoke a service that would have to be subsidized by the municipalities.”

The officials pursuing the grant have already conducted “mini studies” in Barre, Elba and Wilson, where more than 600 surveyed residences did not have access to broadband internet.

”We found that there are a lot of unserved properties,” Tupis said.

The problem, Napoli said, is that the broadband access map used to determine areas in need of infrastructure funding to improve internet access showed different, “flawed” data. It uses census block data, but lists an entire block as broadband ready if only one parcel within it has access. As a result, Orleans County is considered to be 97 percent covered by broadband.

Tupis said their solution would be similar to the process for installing a water district in a rural area. Residents would be polled to see if they have access to broadband internet and to find out if they would be interested in the service if it was available.

”We’d like to do a study first so that we can go to private companies with what we have and don’t have, and ask what they can do for us,” Napoli said. “Niagara and Genesee are in the same position ... it’s so spread out that the companies aren’t interested.”

The group of local officials will meet with State Sen. George Maziarz later this month. Maziarz said that while he hasn’t given up on the Connect NY funding, there are other areas of the state budget that could fund the survey.

”There are areas in the state budget that could be accessed — economic and technology funds,” Maziarz said. “I see this as an economic develop tool ... it’s imperative that this takes place.”

Contact reporter Jim Krencik at 798-1400, ext. 6327.