Orleans may go wireless to provide high-speed Internet

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 27 March 2013 at 12:00 am

ALBION – Municipal leaders in Orleans County have been working for three years to persuade Time Warner to run cable for high-speed Internet in rural pockets without the service.

Time Warner has balked at running the cable in some rural areas, saying the potential for few customers at a $10,000-a-mile cost doesn’t make business sense.

But town and county officials think they have found a way around the problem: Go wireless.

Towers carrying antennas and wireless infrastructure may be the best chance to cover the entire county, Shelby Town Councilman Ken Schaal said.

He called the push for county-wide broadband access a top priority – for economic development and to keep and attract residents.

“We need to stop thinking of ourselves as a bedroom community,” Schaal told local government officials March 26 during the Orleans County Supervisors and Legislators Association meeting. “The Internet is the highway of the future. If we can’t get into that jet stream, we’re screwed.”

Orleans has been working on extending high-speed Internet the past three years, but has been stymied by Time Warner’s reluctance to run cable in the lightly populated areas.

Orleans has since partnered with Niagara County officials in looking at the problem. David Godfrey, a Niagara County legislator, said the current setup puts residents without high-speed Internet at a disadvantage. Students can’t complete some of their homework and research without broadband, he said.

“It’s creating discrimination for students, businesses and residents in the rural areas,” he said about those without the service.

Legislator Lynne Johnson, R-Lyndonville, said residents without broadband often can’t complete job applications online. Many companies only accept applications and resumes through their web sites.

“If you live in a rural area in Orleans County (and are applying for jobs), you might as well stay unemployed,” Johnson said during the association’s monthly meeting.

The two counties had been thinking a first step would be a house-by-house survey to see where the service isn’t available. But Schaal and other local leaders now think the push should be focused on how many towers would be needed in Orleans to blanket the county with wireless high-speed Internet. Wireless providers could co-locate on existing cellular phone towers, water tanks, and other tall infrastructure. New towers may also be needed.

David Callard, the County Legislature chairman, said he supports the engineering study that would look at existing topography and vertical infrastructure, and what may be need to be built. Town and county officials think it may cost $50,000 to have a study done.

Once the study is complete, the county could pursue state funding to help pay for new infrastructure. The state has funded broadband projects in other rural communities. Orleans hasn’t been included in that money because it doesn’t have a study, showing what infrastructure is needed to make the service available to all residents.

The county has been working with Evhen Tupis, a rural broadband consultant, on the project. Tupis said the county should still consider a house-by-house survey, checking for the service availability. Ultimately, wireless service providers will want to know the potential market in the county before they commit resources to Orleans, said Tupis, a Clarendon resident.

“If businesses see an opportunity, they could be enticed to come here,” he said.