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What is the best way to improve broadband connectivity?
Policymakers across New York have been searching for answers to this question for years. Research indicates that the most successful approaches are those that derive from comprehensive, collaborative examinations of specific broadband challenges.
Recent proposals in Erie County illustrate the significant downsides of forgoing collaboration in favor of locking in on a particular approach from the outset.
For some, borrowing tens of millions of dollars to build a countywide government-owned broadband network might seem like a viable solution, but a closer look reveals several weaknesses. In general, large-scale government-owned broadband projects usually struggle. A statewide project in Kentucky was once pitched as a surefire way to bring broadband to rural areas. Unfortunately, the project is $100 million over budget and behind schedule. It also remains to be seen whether the network will achieve its primary goal of encouraging last-mile deployment by private ISPs.
In Erie County, some have argued that the Southern Tier Network, a fiber network jointly deployed by Chemung, Schuyler and Steuben counties, offers a potential blueprint. That system, though, is likely unreplicable. More than 80 percent of its $12 million cost was underwritten by Corning, a major fiber producer based in the Southern Tier. More importantly, nearly eight years after its launch, the network has yet to achieve its connectivity goals. Indeed, a 2018 report prepared for Chemung County concluded that the county “continue[s] to lag behind many more urbanized counties” when it comes to broadband access.
Viewing a government-owned network as a panacea for Erie County’s broadband challenges also obscures the more nuanced issues facing discrete communities. Buffalo, for example, is grappling with lower-than-average broadband adoption rates..
Other communities in Erie County could benefit from additional competitive offerings, an unfortunate situation owing in large part to Verizon’s decision to stop deploying FiOS. And some communities remain without access to any broadband connection, a truly unacceptable situation.
Successfully addressing these issues will require considerable deliberation by all stakeholders – public officials, community groups, ISPs, and other policy experts – to generate targeted strategies that will have an impact.
Improving broadband connectivity in the county also requires collaboration to generate a more granular understanding of the real-world challenges facing communities and ISPs. The editorials on this page represent the opinion of The Buffalo News editorial board. Members are Publisher and President Warren T. Colville; Editor Michael K. Connelly; Editorial Page Editor Kevin S. Walter; and editorial writers Dawn Marie Bracely and Greg Connors.