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DANC seeking partnerships to expand broadband network

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Reaching north from Syracuse to provide Internet access to the north country, the broadband network launched by the Development Authority of the North Country in 2004 already has benefited businesses, schools and residents in the region.

Now, the authority is preparing to expand its network by partnering with local governments interested in connecting to the fiber-optic line.

DANC’s board of directors approved a plan Thursday that will allow the agency to form partnerships with surrounding counties to seek funding for their broadband projects. In particular, the goal will be to extend the network to provide rural communities south of the network with high-speed Internet access, said James W. Wright, DANC’s CEO.

To do so, counties will have to join with DANC to submit a consolidated funding application to the North Country Regional Economic Development Council detailing their project plans. The application deadline is July 17.

Mr. Wright said the authority is involved in discussions with four counties that might connect to the network: Herkimer and Hamilton to the east and Warren and Washington to the southeast. The latter two counties are outside the north country council’s scope, Mr. Wright said, but applications for cooperative projects that cross regions are awarded more points by the state.

In the next month, “there could be multiple projects in terms of applications,” he said. “The level of broadband penetrations in rural areas is extremely limited.”

The Adirondack region is still greatly deprived of high-speed Internet access, Mr. Wright said.

Two ongoing projects that will extend the line east from St. Lawrence County to Clinton and Essex counties are slated to be completed in the next year, Mr. Wright said, offering more opportunities for neighboring counties to latch on to the network.

Mr. Wright said workers started building the northernmost spur, to run from Potsdam to Plattsburgh, this spring. That project is expected to be finished this fall.

Bids from construction companies are being sought for the second spur from Star Lake to Elizabethtown, he said. That project should begin in about two months and be finished by next spring.

“It has always been the authority’s intention to build the line south,” Mr. Wright said, and the two projects will help meet that goal. After the northern line to Plattsburgh is built, he said, it will connect to an existing line built by several private companies that spans from Plattsburgh to Albany.

While the authority will assist other counties with the application process this year, projects planned in the future will have to be spearheaded by other government bodies, not DANC, Mr. Wright said. Projects will be required to meet the following criteria: “One, we’re invited to participate; two, there’s a benefit to the north country, and three, there’s no expenses.”

Mr. Wright said broadening the network to underserved areas should bolster the north country’s economy by establishing more Internet providers to sell their services to residents. When that happens, it creates a ripple effect for the economy.

As a middle-mile broadband provider, “any carrier is allowed to use (our) network,” he said. “And when the (network’s extended), it leads to other investments.”

In the past, private carriers such as Verizon Wireless have claimed that government-funded broadband network in the north country has essentially created a monopoly. But Mr. Wright is quick to point out that the authority started planning the project in 2000 because no private companies were willing to build in the rural area here, where the return on investments is uncertain.

“Not only were providers like Verizon not investing in broadband, they weren’t investing in the copper (wire) system either,” he said. “People in the education arena looking to have higher-speed broadband were told their providers wouldn’t participate and make an investment.”

The state’s commitment to providing access to rural areas like the north country was the driving force that made the project a reality, Mr. Wright said.

“This project would have never happened without state and federal subsidies,” he said.

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