Congressman Higgins & County Executive Poloncarz Planning for Broadband Expansion in Erie County
Emergency Broadband Benefit Program Launches Soon to Help Families Struggling During the Pandemic
Congressman Brian Higgins (NY-26) and Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz announced continued progress on plans to expand broadband access in Erie County thanks to federal resources included in the American Rescue Plan.
“The pandemic shed a bright light on broadband gaps and the disparities it creates in access to education, work, telehealth and customers,” said Congressman Higgins. “County Executive Poloncarz was a step ahead in addressing the need to provide better connectivity in the community. Thanks to this groundwork we are prepared to deploy broadband expansion in Erie County with federal funding made available through COVID relief legislation.”
County Executive Poloncarz said, “High-quality broadband is modern infrastructure, an essential component of communications for healthcare, business, education, government, and more. Disparities in broadband coverage and quality have left parts of our county out of the loop, left behind because their service is inadequate or nonexistent. Investing in Erie Net will bring better connectivity countywide, eliminating disparities in coverage and levelling the playing field. I thank Congressman Higgins for fighting to ensure that American Rescue Plan funds can be used for this critical infrastructure need.”
County Executive Poloncarz has an aggressive plan to bring high-speed internet to every municipality in Erie County. The program, ErieNet, would achieve this through the instillation of approximately 360 miles of fiber lines. The County had planned to borrow to pay for the program. A federal commitment to invest in broadband infrastructure will save Erie County residents the cost of this capital expense and provide the opportunity to improve internet access and affordability across the county.
The American Rescue Plan, signed into law on March 11, 2021, included direct aid to states and localities. Under the bill, Erie and Niagara Counties and their municipalities will receive nearly $775 million in relief. Erie County will receive $178.18 million directly and Erie County and its municipalities will receive over $657.7 million combined.
The law allows municipalities to use the funding to respond to the pandemic, deliver services to the community or to make necessary investments in water, sewer or broadband. Congressman Higgins recently wrote to the Treasury Secretary requesting flexibility for communities choosing to invest in broadband.
Higgins wrote, “The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the already rapid digitization of our world. Office work, education, social activities, and cultural events occur virtually more often than ever before. Municipalities are on the forefront of adapting their operations to a new reality. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to broadband access in our country’s diverse and varied communities. Broadband-related purposes must be kept flexible to allow for the maximum benefit.”
But the funding in the American Rescue Plan won’t get us to where we need to be in providing full, affordable access nationwide. The White House estimates that 30 million Americans are without broadband access at minimally acceptable speeds. The American Jobs plan, a proposed infrastructure package currently before Congress, proposes an additional $100 billion to reach high-speed broadband coverage everywhere, promote competition among providers including lifting barriers that prevent municipality affiliated providers, and to reduce the cost of internet service for businesses and residents.
Erie County has issued a Request for Proposals for the design of ErieNet. The program would establish, through the installation of fiber optic cable, an Open Access Network connecting schools, libraries, healthcare, business, government service providers, and businesses. The network would also serve as a backbone from which internet service providers could connect to expand the reach of high-quality internet access. The contract for the work is expected to be awarded in the next few weeks allowing the project to proceed.
Congressman Higgins and County Executive Poloncarz also announced the federal Emergency Broadband Benefit Program will open to residents on May 12, 2021. The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 included $3.2 billion to help decrease the cost of high-speed internet for eligible households during the pandemic. To qualify household income must be at or below 135% of the federal poverty line or a member of the household must be eligible for a federal Pell Grant, approved for a free or reduced lunch, qualify for SNAP, Medicaid, SSI, veteran benefits or Lifeline benefits, participate in specific tribal programs or have experienced a substantial loss of income. Those eligible can receive up to $50 toward a month’s broadband service and up to $100 on a computer or tablet. Only one service and device discount per household. The program ends when the funding runs out or six months after the federal government declares an end to the COVID-19 health emergency, whichever comes first. To register for the program, determine eligibility or learn more, visit: https://getemergencybroadband.org.