County approves engineering contract for ReConnect Project

John Christensen
The Chronicle Express

PENN YAN — At last week’s meeting, the Yates County Legislature approved an over $1 million contract with New York Engineering Services as part of the Yates County ReConnect Project for internet broadband.

Covering about 80 square miles, charted here in blue, the ReConnect Project will provide and improve internet access for approximately 2,800 rural households, plus farms, businesses, and the Penn Yan and Dundee Central School Districts; far more than the 1,635 originally estimated.

The $14 million project is funded by a $10.3 million grant from the USDA Rural Utility Service (RUS) with a 25% match from Yates County ($3,489,125) for construction of a gigabit capable fiber optic broadband network to reach unserved/underserved premises in the county. RUS is an agency within the USDA that provides much-needed infrastructure or infrastructure improvements to rural communities. Yates County was awarded the grant in March 2020.

The Proposed Funded Service Area (PFSA) of the project are the areas that were approved by RUS for build-out using the Grant monies. There are very specific RUS definitions of what premises can and cannot be included. “Unserved or underserved” is defined as <10Mbps download and <1Mbps upload speeds; they cannot be in an area that previously received state or federal grant money; and 90% of the premises in the area must be unserved or underserved to be included. An interactive version of the PFSA’s can be found at www.yatescounty.org/542/USDA-ReConnect-Grant.

The 5-County Coalition including Chemung, Schuyler, Steuben, Tioga and Yates Counties authorized STN (Southern Tier Network) to work with Fujitsu to deliver a feasibility study with a goal of making regional, unified decisions to meet rural broadband needs. Covering about 80 square miles, this major project will provide and improve internet access for approximately 2,800 rural households, plus farms, businesses, and the Penn Yan and Dundee Central School Districts; far more than the 1,635 originally estimated. The county will not be the operator of the installed network, but seeks to partner with existing internet service provider Empire Access to develop a mutually beneficial business arrangement for operation of the network.

This is one of the largest projects that the County has ever undertaken so was essential to get things organized and moving in the right direction. The Yates County Broadband Advisory Committee includes Legislators Leslie Church, Tim Cutler and Rick Willson, County Treasurer-Administrator Nonie Flynn, IT Director Tim Groth, Planner Dan Long, Specialist for Projects and Grants Marian Walrath, and Mike Lipari from the Finger Lakes Economic Development Center, along with county residents Steve Brigham, Brian Gentry, Bob Nielsen, and Mike O’Brien. Flynn stated last September, “These Yates County residents have strong career experience in the broadband arena. They are already lending a wealth of technical and business acumen to the project.”

But there was not total agreement within the committee or in the legislature. Legislation, signed by Gov. Cuomo last Friday, requires providers operating in New York State to offer $15/month high-speed internet to low-income families across the state. New Yorkers qualifying for this affordable internet program include households who are eligible or receiving free or reduced-price lunch, supplemental nutrition assistance program benefits, Medicaid benefits, the senior citizen or disability rent increase exemptions, or an affordability benefit from a utility. It also requires providers to report to the Public Service Commission annually on their offers and uptake.

Committee member and legislator Rick Willson expressed his concerns for the county’s portion of the project and suggested delaying the vote. “We are ponying up $3 million in taxpayer money for this. I don’t want the county to be on the hook for more money,” referring to past expenditures on technology projects, as well as the provision in the state budget to provide low-income state residents with internet service for $15 a month.

According to Flynn, Empire Access backs the engineering contract. “This is the next step in this project,” Church stated. “Why should our residents be set back by delaying this? It would be foolish to wait.” Cutler reminded Willson, “This engineering contract has nothing to do with future revenues. We will have to pay for these engineering services no matter what. We won’t even start billing until a year or a year and a half from now.”

After the discussion closed, the contract was approved 11-3 as Willson was joined by legislators Carlie Chilson and Terry Button in dissent.

Once the engineering plans and specifications are finalized, the County will move into a bid process to secure the construction firm who will do the actual build.

Updates on the project can be found on the county’s internet site at www.yatescounty.org/542/USDA-ReConnect-Grant. Residents seeking more information may contact dlong@yatescounty.org or mwalrath@yatescounty.org.